Chelsea climbed to the top of the Barclays Premier League with a narrow, yet fortunate 2-1 victory against Aston Villa. It’s the ideal start to the season for Jose Mourinho’s men ahead of their first real test, against David Moyes’ Manchester United, Monday night.
Although we expect Monday’s clash at Old Trafford to be a tight affair, Chelsea had to work harder than expected to claim maximum points against Paul Lambert’s men. Despite having a decent outing against Hull City, Fernando Torres didn’t feature in the squad, while the impressive Kevin De Bruyne started the match on the bench. Demba Ba and Juan Mata replaced the latter in the starting 11, as the rest of the side was unchanged.
Chelsea has made a habit of starting matches extremely well, and once again, Mourinho’s men were able to take an early lead. In the 6th minute, Frank Lampard’s reverse pass found Oscar, and the Brazilian slipped in a delightful ball that Eden Hazard struck at Brad Guzan. Unfortunately for the American goalkeeper, his initial save ricocheted off Antonio Luna, into the back of the net.
Villa has failed to keep a clean sheet in their past 23 matches, and it looked certain that Chelsea would begin to enforce their superiority on the match, but similar to their weekend match against Arsenal, Villa didn’t crack under the pressure. Often dropping into a 4-5-1 without the ball, Villa were compact, organized and eager to break on the counter when provided the opportunity.
Andreas Weimann and Gabby Agbonlahor worked hard on the wings to prevent Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic from getting forward, thus putting more pressure on the Chelsea’s attacking three to create. Chelsea’s three amigos also struggled to stamp their authority on the match, often dropping deep into midfield to help the Ramires/Lampard double pivot get the ball forward or connect play with Ba, who had himself a quiet match.
Mata started on the right of the attacking three, often interchanging with Oscar, who wanted Hazard and the Spaniard to penetrate the space behind him, but Villa coped well with their threat. For all their defensive work, Villa was unable to construct a threatening counter-attack, often supplying a poor final ball, or not providing enough support for Christian Benteke. But at the stroke of half-time Lambert’s men were rewarded – Agbonlahor skipped past Ivanovic and delivered a quality ball to Benteke, who viciously struck his shot past Petr Cech, before John Terry could close the Belgian striker down.
Villa grew stronger in the second half, and much credit should be given to their midfield three. Karim El Ahmadi and Fabian Delph pressed Ramires and Lampard, preventing them from playing penetrating passes forward, but the Villa also made timely tackles in midfield when Chelsea’s attacking three dropped deeper. In particular, Delph produced a MOTM performance completing the most interceptions, tackles, ball recoveries, and take-on’s, of any player in the match.
With that being said, it still leaves one to question Mourinho’s intent in playing a Lampard and Ramires in the double pivot. Even on the few occasions when pressure wasn’t applied, Lampard was playing passes backwards and sideways, while Ramires was restricted to playing balls over the top to Ba, as he was unable to influence the match with his penetrating runs. Villa’s midfield three was superior to the Chelsea pivot, and it’s only a matter of time before Mourinho stems away from this duo, if he intends on succeeding in his second stint.
It was evident that the Blues were struggling, so the Portuguese manager turned to his bench introducing Andre Schurrle and Romelu Lukaku for Mata and the unimpressive Ba. This was a great chance for Ba to make a statement to his manager, but he was peripheral figure for majority of his time on the pitch – often being caught offside, and failing to get into good positions to receive the ball.
Lukaku made the most of his 25-minute cameo, looking to receive the ball at every chance, and using his strength and energy to open up space in the attacking third, and the Belgian nearly gave the Blues the lead, but his shot flashed inches wide of the post.
But Chelsea didn’t have to wait long to find a winner, as Ivanovic met a glorious Lampard free-kick, and the Serbian nodded the ball past Guzan. Chelsea then took the sting out of the match, focusing more on their natural shape and looked to blitz Villa on the counter – although their moves looked positive, like Villa in the first half, their final ball was dire.
In fairness, Mourinho’s men were fortunate to keep the Portuguese manager’s 100% record at Stamford Bridge intact, as referee Kevin Friend awarded Ivanovic a yellow card for a clear elbow on Benteke, and ignored a legitimate penalty shout, when Terry handled Agbonlahor’s nod down in the box.
Villa at times looked capable of claiming maximum points at Stamford Bridge, but will be gutted not to leave with something. But Villa will be content with their performance – they’ve showcased their maturity and growth as a unit against two top-sides in the country, as Lambert is slowly getting his message across to his young side.
As for Mourinho, there are still many questions to ask about his young Chelsea squad. It’s becoming clear that a striker is needed, while the double pivot and his personnel in his attacking three are still being closely monitored. Certainly we’ll learn more as the season continues, but they’ll need to be better if they intend on walking out of Old Trafford with maximum points.