The gap may not seem to be as big as it was a year or two again, but it still clearly exists. As Aston Villa and Chelsea line up at – ridiculously – Wembley Stadium for their FA Cup semi-final this afternoon, both clubs have a lot on their mind. Chelsea followed up the disappointment of being knocked – quite comprehensively, as things turned out – out of the Champions League with one of their best performances of the season, with a 2-1 win at Old Trafford last weekend. Still, though, the Premier League title race (which, we can reasonably assume, will now start to matter that bit more now that all of its protagonists are out of Europe for this season) is still wide open between Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal. For Chelsea, though, any league and cup double would be a first.
Aston Villa, meanwhile, are starting to give the impression of having had a disappointing season. They have been eclipsed as the team most likely to break into the Champions League Four by Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. They reached the League Cup final but couldn’t see off Manchester United and Europe didn’t reap them any rewards either. An FA Cup final win would be massive progress for them, but such are the thin margins between success and failure in football these days would probably result in Aston Villa regarding this season as having been a case of one step forward and two steps back, or at least of having stood still when they may have expected to make progress. If they want to break out and breathe in this exalted air, this sort of match – an FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea at Wembley – is the sort of match that they need to start winning.
Aston Villa may have lost 7-1 to Chelsea in the Premier League a couple of weeks ago but, if this is supposed to be playing on the minds of the Villa players, it doesn’t seem to show for the first half an hour or so. Chelsea seem sluggish and, in a match that seems likely to be a game of few chances, it is Villa that have much of the first half possession. Neither side is helped by (and this seems likely to be an ongoing feature of the new Wembley Stadium) an appalling pitch, which seems to be carrying out the seemingly contradictory double whammy of being over-watered and playing too slowly at the same time. The players frequently look as if they are struggling to keep their feet and some of the players look as if the ground beneath them is covered in marbles. It makes for a disjointed, if enthused, first half.
The best chance of the half doesn’t result in a clear, goal-scoring opportunity. Gabriel Agbonlahor collects the ball inside the Chelsea box and flicks the ball past Jon Obi Mikel, who seems to catch the top of Agbonlahor’s thigh as he passes him. It looks a penalty from a distance and it looks even more like one when the close-up replay is shown, but Howard Webb’s hands stay by his side. He’s wrong, but can Villa afford such mistakes? In the first half, the answer is a fairly clear “yes”, and they almost have a clear chance when Petr Cech misjudges a Stewart Downing cross from the right but a slight headed touch from John Terry nicks the ball away from Agbonlahor at the last second. Chelsea do start to come on stronger as we near half time. Didier Drogba’s shot from twelve yards is brilliantly blocked by Stephen Warnock and Brad Friedel makes a comfortable save from a weak, angled shot by Joe Cole and at half-time there is barely a cigarette paper between the two sides.
At half-time, they’re out with their pitchforks, patting down the surface. This pitch has got to be used again tomorrow afternoon. Is there any chance that the FA will ever actually get this right? The FA Cup remains their showpiece competition, but the quality of football has been seriously affected by the watering of the pitch. The first twenty minutes of the second half are poor, although Chelsea are clearly improved, and they take the lead after sixty-six minutes when Richard Dunne’s header from a corner falls on John Terry on the edge of the penalty area. Terry’s first time shot is mis-kicked and wayward, but Didier Drogba turns the ball over the line from four yards out. Chelsea haven’t been playing terribly well and whether they deserve the lead or not is certainly a moot point, but such lackadaisical defending certainly deserves to be punished.
Aston Villa’s response is, however, largely toothless. For all of their efforts , they fail to even manage a shot on goal that troubles Petr Cech and with two minutes left to play, Chelsea (who have looked more dangerous on the break, for all of Aston Villa’s possession during the second half) snatch a second goal when Michael Ballack swings the ball over from the right hand side and Florent Malouda, completely unmarked on the far post and with all the time in the world, volleys past Friedel from an angle to send Chelsea to Wembley. Deep into injury time, Frank Lampard arrives in he penalty area to roll the ball into the corner of the net to make it 3-0, with the Aston Villa defence now at sixes and sevens. Chelsea haven’t played particularly well and the margin of the scoreline has been somewhat flattering, but they have done enough to scrape over the line and guarantee themselves at least one cup final this season.
Don’t read to much into the automatic inference that would come from the final scoreline of this match. Chelsea were flattered by the scoreline of a match which might have had a very different outcome had John Obi Mikel’s first half foul on Gabriel Agbonlahor led to the penalty kick and red card that it may well have deserved. Still, though, Villa’s problem when playing the biggest four clubs is an attacking bluntness that will likely only be resolved with a financial gamble that few football clubs can afford in the current environment. Once they went a goal behind, there was no way back for them and there was an air of inevitability about Chelsea extending their lead as the game wore on and Aston Villa started to tire. Chelsea, on the other hand, are one match away from the half of the double. Their detractors may sing, “You’ve got no history” at them, but Chelsea might just be creating their own as we speak.