Chelsea’s 7-1 thrashing of Aston Villa not only ended their Champions League aspirations, but it also could have ended their hopes of playing in a European competition next season.
To add insult to injury, the Villans suffered their first defeat of 2010 and saw their best defence record taken away from them. What cannot be denied is that this was bound to happen sooner or later. The Villa defence was at fault for the first goal after failing to clear Florent Malouda’s cross which eventually found Frank Lampard to slide in at the back post. Villa’s equaliser just before the half-hour mark mirrored Chelsea’s opener after Ashley Young evaded three Chelsea players before delivering a curled cross that John Carew converted from close range. To Martin O’Neill’s delight, his side had pegged back the home side almost immediately with Carew continuing his impressive goal scoring form. Lampard’s penalty just before the half-time whistle might have put Chelsea ahead during the interval, but the Midlanders never looked beaten. Knowing that his side could get back into the game, O’Neill pushed Gabriel Agbonlahor up to partner Carew up front and switched James Milner from the wing into the heart of midfield.
The Villans began the second-half the brighter side but, as always, the next goal was going to be crucial. That is why Malouda’s volleyed goal on 55 minutes was a hammer blow to the visiting side after they were undone by a fine team goal. John Terry spoke about capitalising on Villa’s tendency to drop in performance levels come the hour mark, and that is exactly what Chelsea did. The four goals after the 60 minute mark was the result of Villa’s capitulation. Frank Lampard scored again from the penalty spot, Malouda added to Chelsea’s lead with a slick finish, Salomon Kalou’s capitalised from Nicolas Anelka’s lay-off, and Lampard’s volleyed in his fourth in stoppage time. Since the transfer window ended, the Villa manager spoke about the strength-in-depth of is squad and how the rotation tactic is going to be essential if Villa are to challenge for fourth place and improve on their position from last season. However, with seven games remaining in the league, it is clear that the Northern Irishman prefers to stick with his tried and trusted formula.
Martin O’Neill’s preferred Aston Villa Starting XI
24 Cuellar – 5 Dunne – 29 Collins – 25 Warnock
7 A Young – 8 Milner – 19 Petrov – 6 Downing
11 Agbonlahor – 10 Carew
With this formation, there are players such as Luke Young, Habib Beye, Curtis Davies, Steve Sidwell Marc Albrighton, Fabian Delph and Nathan Delfouneso who are frequently left on the side-lines, lacking valuable first-team football. If there is anywhere that tiredness has affected the squad, it is the defence. Throughout the season the Villa back-line have been praised for their resolute defending, however, as the season has gone on, the strength and stability at the back has began to deteriorate. O’Neill should have rotated the back-four a couple of times during the season to ensure fitness, particularly with experienced defenders such as Habib Beye unlikely to be a risk to the manager. Nevertheless, perhaps it was Villa’s continued success at the back that prevented the manager from making any changes but as Chelsea proved on Saturday, some of the Villa defenders are in dire need of a rest.
O’Neill was undoubtedly irritated at his side’s performance, “We deserved to be hammered, and I’m not sure the players could see that coming. I have not seen this sort of performance from them before and, from all of us, it was unacceptable. Sometimes, what can you do? We’d have been beaten by a Fourth Division side on the last half hour’s performance and, if we play like this in two weeks, there is no point us turning up.” What the Midlands side must do is bounce back from this defeat by leaving the Reebok stadium with three points on Saturday, especially with the anticipation of the FA Cup semi-final against Chelsea a week later. On the training pitch, O’Neill and his coaches will need to work on the side’s fitness levels in order to prevent the drop in performance which has cost them many points in the last few weeks. As with all major defeats, there is only two ways to react to them. For Villa, they can either let the result ruin the remainder of the season or they can fight back even stronger and end the season in the same fashion they have played throughout it.
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