It is about time that Aston Villa Football Club should be considered as a difficult team to play against and a genuine opposition to the top four. Three months into the 2009/10 Premier League season, the Villans have stolen three points from both Liverpool and Chelsea, finding themselves sixth in the table with the advantage of a game in hand. If Villa remain consistent, and consistent being the key word, then Martin O’Neill’s side may just prove to be a dark horse in the league. Where Villa showed potency, the Blues revealed frailties in an area in which you would not think a top English side would have – set-pieces.
Villa’s excellent defensive performance on Saturday should not be overshadowed by Chelsea’s defensive mishaps, instead, it should be compared to the Blues in order to show just how flawless James Collins and Richard Dunne were at the back for Villa. Right from the off, the Villans made it clear that they were going to make it as hard as possible for Chelsea and they took the game to the visiting side. However on 15 minutes, Chelsea’s Didier Drogba took possession of the ball in the centre circle and fired a shot from 30 yards out which took an awkward bounce past Brad Friedel into the Villa net. Chelsea were slightly fortunate to take the lead, leaving Martin O’Neill to rue this unfortunate mistake. When Villa were eventually defending their lead towards the end of the game, the American goalkeeper proved that his earlier blunder was a one off with a series of remarkable reflex saves, preventing efforts from Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka. Once again, the 38-year-old proved just how valuable he is to O’Neill’s plans.
In the end, it was fitting that the Villa centre-backs capped their fine performances with a goal each. Just after the half-hour mark, Frank Lampard’s poorly cleared header from a corner ended up at the far post and Dunne fired home. Shortly after the break, Collins almost single-handedly won the game for Villa, first by preventing a likely goal from Drogba and then by heading in past Petr Cech from another corner. After Villa’s second goal, Carlo Ancelotti’s men probed for an equaliser to no avail. It was not that Chelsea were particularly awful, they still played their usual fluid attacking football. However, it was countered by resolute defending by the entire Villa back four. The defence got in front of every shot and the Chelsea players were prevented from having any time on ball in the Villa area. The Villa defensive performance epitomised the squad’s determination and belief to get a result out of the game.
The manager and fans alike began to get frustrated once Chelsea’s weakness began to unveil as wingers, Ashley Young and James Milner failed to provide the Villa strike-force with enough service to really unsettle the Chelsea back-line. In contrast, Chelsea’s Deco pulled all the strings in midfield and in effect showed that Villa were lacking a creative force in the centre of the pitch. Nevertheless, the Villans were confident and assured at the back, whereas the Blues were edgy and unconvincing. Stephen Warnock, in particular, was a constant threat to the Chelsea defence from the left-back position, whilst Ashley Cole failed to make an impact on the left hand side. It was from these individual performances that provoked O’Neill to dismiss claims that Villa beat Chelsea because of set-pieces as “crazy talk”, saying that “there was excitement when our flair players picked it up throughout the game.”
Martin O’Neill and his side face four successive away games in the Premier League and these matches will be a perfect way of seeing whether or not the Villans can remain consistent against tricky opposition in the form of Sunderland, Everton and West Ham. Next week sees Villa take on a struggling Wolves side, a game in which the Villans will be expected to take all three points, keeping the morale in the dressing room high.
The match on Saturday saw Villa exceed all expectations once again by beating a top four side in the Premier League. O’Neill has a much stronger squad than last year and there is no reason why the club cannot contend for another European place and emulate, if not exceed last season’s finish. With Chelsea and Liverpool down already, it is just Arsenal and Manchester United left to go.