(Saturday 31 March 2012)
Chelsea took the honours in a six-goal thriller at Villa Park to keep alive hopes of a top four finish – and qualification for next year’s Champions League.
After dominating three-quarters of the game and establishing a two-goal lead, Aston Villa looked to have got back into the match with two goals in quick succession, but Chelsea hit back with two further goals to complete an impressive display – and give Roberto Di Matteo his sixth victory in eight games since taking over as interim manager.
There were three changes to the side that started against Benfica. Branislav Ivanovic, returning from injury, replaced Paulo Ferreira at right back and Frank Lampard replaced the injured Raul Meireles in midfield. Daniel Sturridge also returned, replacing Ramires.
Chelsea could have gone ahead within five minutes when Fernando Torres picked up a through ball down the centre of the pitch but he was denied by the on-rushing Villa keeper, Shay Given. The blues didn’t need to wait long to take the lead, and Torres was involved again, touching a cross on to Juan Mata and collecting the return pass. Given denied Torres a second time as the Spaniard shot goalwards but the ball broke free to Daniel Sturridge,
who slammed in his 12th goal of the season.
Juan Mata nearly doubled the lead as, after exchanging passes with Torres, he lifted the ball over the advancing Given but it bounced back off the post. At the other end, Cech had to use his feet to keep a goal-bound effort from Gabriel Agbonlahor out of the Chelsea net.
While Villa finished the first half strongly and put pressure on the Chelsea goal after the break, only five minutes of the second half elapsed before the Blues went two ahead. The home side failed to clear a corner and Ivanovic prodded the ball into the Villa goal.
The second goal appeared to kill off the game and Chelsea defended comfortably for the next 25 minutes, allowing Villa few opportunities to threaten the visitors’ goal. But that all changed with two Villa goals in three minutes, both from careless defending.
First Villa centre-half James Collins was given room to head home a long throw-in on 77 minutes. Then after 80 minutes a deep cross to the back post found Eric Lichaj, who crept in behind Ashley Cole to prod the ball home from close range.
Before this game Chelsea had dropped a total of 15 points after scoring first in games but failing to hold on to win. That included Chelsea’s game against Villa at Stamford Bridge on New Year’s Eve, when the home team scored the opening goal but ended up losing 1-3.
But the current Chelsea team seem to be made of sterner stuff. Indeed they regained the lead only three minutes later when Torres flicked on substitute Malouda’s corner and Ivanovic headed home for his second goal of the game.
With the game moving into added time and Villa pouring forward in search of another equaliser, Sturridge broke quickly into the opposition half and laid a perfect pass into the path of Torres, who drove the ball home beyond the diving Given.
With the return leg of the Champions League quarter final against Benfica coming up on Wednesday, Chelsea will be concerned about the fitness of David Luiz, who limped out of the Villa game just before half-time with an ankle ligament problem. He was man-of-the-match in the first game and will be keen to put in another solid display against his former club.
by Nick Sheppard