There’s something afoot in the court of Chelsea. After a start to the season that carried on the way that last season ended (high octane football mixed with the arrogance of the club that knows that it is amongst the best in Europe), they have started to look just a little bit ropey of late. Their win over Liverpool last weekend needs to be offset against a defeat at Wigan and scrambled wins against two teams that they might have been expecting to brush aside with comfort, Queens Park Rangers in the League Cup and Apoel Nicosia in the Champions League. And yesterday afternoon, the team that have become the undisputed kings of coming from behind to snatch a win were given a dose of their own medicine by Aston Villa yesterday afternoon.
Of course, there is no great shame in losing to Aston Villa. After all, they have already won at Anfield this season and held Manchester City at Villa Park already this season. However, the Premier League has become so lopsided in recent years that any defeat for the Champions League Four is now regarded as being some sort of calamity. Chelsea have lost two matches? How could this be? It’s not even November yet! This, however, is a result that does open up the Premier League somewhat. There are now just six points between Manchester United at the top of the table and Sunderland in seventh place. It’s probably too much to ask that this state of affairs will last very long, but it’s quite enjoyable while it does.
What was surprising about this result wasn’t so much that Aston Villa won, but that they came from behind in order to do so. Having taken the lead, one might have expected Chelsea to dig in, do what they had to do and make the most of an early lead in an away match against tricky opposition. Chelsea had an early warning when Gabriel Agbonlahor appeared to be pulled down in the penalty area by Jose Boswinga. The fact that the penalty wasn’t awarded may have had something to do with the fact that the referee was changed just before the kick-off after first choice Steve Bennett suddenly fell ill and was replaced by Kevin Friend, but it was an early indication that Chelsea might have their work cut for them.
When Chelsea took the lead four minutes later, however, the goal had a slice of luck about it. Didier Drogba was somewhat ambitious in trying a shot on goal from thirty-five yards out. His dipping shot dropped in front of Villa goalkeeper Brad Friedel at an uncomfortable angle, but Friedel should have done better with it and the ball squirmed through him and into the roof of the net. Even Drogba, not usually a man shy of blowing his own trumpet, looked a little bashful in his celebration. Chelsea had their opportunities to kill the game off. Ashley Cole, of all people, momentarily inherited the spirit of Cristiano Ronaldo and carried the ball from the halfway line before he seemed to suddenly remember that he is actually a full back and shot just over from the edge of the penalty area. Young’s corner was, perhaps surprisingly, flicked on by Frank Lampard and Richard Dunne arrived completely unmarked and headed in from six yards out. Chelsea came back strongly and Brad Friedel partially redeemed himself with a couple of smart saves from Deco and Drogba. Half-time came with the scores level and Chelsea back on the front foot.
When Aston Villa grabbed the lead seven minutes into the second half, it came from another Ashley Young corner on the left hand side, which seems to indicate that this Chelsea team may have problems with learning from their mistakes. This time it was James Collins who had been given the freedom of the Chelsea penalty area to head wide of Petr Cech and in. As one might expect – and as has become pretty commonplace in matches in which one of the Champions League Four have fallen behind – the match started to adopt some of the characteristics of one of the uglier scenes from “Rourke’s Drift” thereafter as Chelsea poured forward in search of an equaliser, but Friedel’s legs, defenders back-sides and some surprisingly unimaginative midfield play meant that Villa hung on, and it almost feels like scant reward for a team that has now beaten two of the Champions League Four that they sat only in sixth place in the Premier League table by five o’clock.
The biggest beneficiaries of Chelsea’s interface with this particular banana skin were Manchester United, although they were again unconvincing in beating Bolton Wanderers at Old Trafford. Liverpool, meanwhile, hit an even bigger banana skin in losing to Sunderland thanks to a goal deflected in off a beach ball. Perhaps in the interests of public relations, those interviewed on behalf of the club were relatively magnanimous about the goal, but what is worth noting is that the fuss about the beach ball overlooks the fact that Liverpool were beaten by a better team on the day regardless of any other considerations. Sunderland have been one of the surprises of the season so far under Steve Bruce, and the crowd of over 47,000 at The Stadium of Light further underlines the potential if they can continue to achieve at the level to which they have been doing so far this season. Chelsea, meanwhile, will probably come back, stronger and hungrier than ever. The Premier League is very tight at the moment. Enjoy it while it lasts.