Chelsea’s festive season got off to an entertaining, if costly start at Stamford Bridge, with an incredible 4-4 draw against Aston Villa. Three red cards, two penalties, a free kick and a scorcher from Shevchenko all part of this Christmas cracker; a game destined to go down in Premiership history as the “Thriller against Villa.”

Surprisingly, Petr Čech was passed fit to start after coming off injured against Blackburn. As a result, Hilario, who was expected to start, was again on the bench. The defence was unchanged, but there was a change of shape in midfield and attack, Avram Grant deploying a 4-2-3-1 formation. Essien and Lampard were in midfield, Pizarro just ahead of them, with Joe Cole and Kalou the wide men. Andriy Shevchenko started in attack.

Villa had four main threats in attack, being John Carew, Shaun Maloney, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young. The infamous Scott Carson started in goal, whilst Gareth Barry captained the side.

Aston Villa had the better of the first ten minutes of play, with Chelsea struggling to string together passes long enough to trouble Martin O’Neill’s men. Their early dominance bore fruit as they took the lead after 13 minutes. Gabriel Agbonlahor did well after winning possession from Kalou and sent a well flighted ball over the top to Carew. The Norwegian striker had the presence of mind to knock it down to his strike partner Maloney, who was on hand to poke the ball past Čech for the opening goal.

Midway through the first half, Frank Lampard pulled up with a thigh injury and was substituted, Michael Ballack coming on for his first Premiership appearance of the season. His contribution was to be a vital one, as Joe Cole took over the armband.

A poor Ashley Cole clearance gave Agbonlahor time to strike a volley towards goal, Čech doing well to stand tall and block the shot. However, the out of form goalkeeper was certainly to blame for Maloney’s second goal, two minutes before the end of the first 45. The Villa forward broke away down the left and shook off the attentions of Pizarro, before shimmying around Alex. His eventual shot from 25 yards was struck well enough, but should have been a regulation save from Čech, who, on one knee, “Scott Carson’d” the ball into the back of the net. One has to ask whether the goalkeeper was perhaps rushed back after his injury last time out.

However, the first half drama wasn’t to end there, as in the fourth minute of stoppage time, Chelsea found a lifeline. Essien’s miss-hit shot fell to Ballack in the box, who was fouled as he turned towards goal. The foul was by the last defender, Zat Knight, the hero against Chelsea at Villa Park earlier in the season and referee Phil Dowd saw fit to send him off.

Shevchenko, rather than Ballack, stepped up to take the penalty and showed all his cool to send Carson the wrong way and calmly place the ball in the bottom left hand corner, with the Villa keeper diving in the opposite direction. At half time the score was 2-1 to Villa, but with comparatively less drama than the second stanza.

Curtis Davis replaced the unlucky Maloney at half time, as Villa looked to sit on their 2-1 lead. Nonetheless, Chelsea still took the game to the visitors and made our one man advantage count just four minutes into the second half.

Salomon Kalou knocked the ball to Shevchenko, lurking threateningly 25 yards from goal. The former European Footballer of the Year took a controlling touch before looking up and unleashing an absolute stunner into the top left hand corner. Carson was left flailing as the strike fizzed and swerved past him into the back of the net. Shevchenko’s second of the game was his eight of the season, as the signs again show that he is finding his shooting boots at last. Yet, the Ukrainian’s contribution wasn’t over after that stunner.

Chelsea took the lead for the first time in the match, after 65 minutes. Alex “Carvalho’d” his way forward, starting on the half way line and finding Shevchenko. Enjoying his best match in a Chelsea shirt, Shevchenko dropped the shoulder and dummied his way past a bewildered Gareth Barry, before finding Alex once more who had continued his run to the edge of the penalty area. His touch took him around David, before he smashed the finish beyond Carson to make it 3-2. It was the Brazilian’s third goal of the season, Shevchenko adding an assist to his two goals.

Just six minutes later, Villa equalised, through Martin Laursen. The big defender expertly volleyed past the stagnant Čech after a wonderful delivery from Ashley Young. With ten minutes left to go, the game changed again, referee Dowd sending off Ricardo Carvalho for a two footed lunge on Agbonlahor. The decision was the correct one after a dangerous challenge from the Portuguese, who will now be suspended for three matches.

Wright-Phillips replaced the magnificent Shevchenko and Mikel the anonymous Pizarro as the clock inched closer towards 90 minutes. Yet again though, the drama wasn’t over. Joe Cole was fouled on the edge of the box with three minutes to go. Ballack, Alex, Ashley Cole and Mikel were all around the set piece, with many thinking that Alex would thump it into the top corner. However, Ballack stepped in and curled the ball around the Villa wall and picked the gap between Carson’s despairing dive and the far post, to put Chelsea 4-3 ahead. The German’s contribution since coming on had been immense, second only to the superb Shevchenko. Once more though, there was a final sting in the tail.

In the dying moments of injury time, Villa sub Harewood wrecked havoc in the box and eventually a cross was delivered to the back post. There was knock down and in amongst the bodies a header was diverted towards goal, before being cleared off the line by Ashley Cole. The referee and/or the linesman deduced that he must have handled the ball in the process and gave a penalty, before dismissing Cole from the field of play. Chelsea were down to nine men; Villa had a chance to snatch a point.

Barry lined it up and Sheva-esque sent the goalkeeper the wrong way, Čech diving right and Barry slotting it left. The fans were stunned by the spectacle and the all action match that had happened in front of them.

The full time whistle was greeted by a mixture of awe at the match that had been played and disappointment at the dropped two points. Chelsea should have held on to both of their leads, but all credit must go to a spirited Aston Villa side that were very much deserving of their point. Those that were there, however, can claim to have witnessed one of the all time great English Premier League matches, where the beauty of football was once again on display, for all to see.

Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Čech; Ferreira, Alex, Carvalho, A Cole; Essien, Lampard (c) (Ballack 25); J Cole, Pizarro (Mikel 84), Kalou; Shevchenko (Wright-Phillips 82).

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Carson; Mellberg, Knight, Laursen, Bouma (Harewood 89); Agbonlahor, Reo-Coker, Barry (c), Young; Maloney (Davies ht), Carew (Moore 77).

Referee Phil Dowd
Crowd 41,686

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