Chelsea 2 Aston Villa 0
“Welcome to the top of the league” said the pitch-side announcer as the teams ran out ahead of this crunch battle between first and fourth place in the top flight.
In the end Aston Villa could not have been given a more poignant reminder of just how tough life is at the summit as they were torn apart by a vibrant Chelsea side.
Martin O’Neill’s side had been tipped as the team capable of breaking Chelsea’s unbeaten home record of 85 games in the Barclays Premier League with Manchester United boss Alex Ferguson even marking them down as “dark horses” for the top four. But in the end Villa’s young guns were subjected to a first-half Chelsea masterclass.
Frank Lampard ensured watching England coach Fabio Capello was given food for thought in midfield while the visitors had the heroics of American keeper Brad Friedel to thank for keeping the deficit at two goals. But for his Teflon-coated gloves this could have been a rout.
Chelsea made four key changes with Didier Drogba, Deco, Michael Essien and Ricardo Carvalho all out injured – the reinforcements came in the shape of Michael Ballack and Nicolas Anelka – while Scolari revealed prior to the game that he had done his homework on Villa.
O’Neill’s side had beaten Chelsea 2-0 at Villa Park and then drawn 4-4 at Stamford Bridge last season – but that was under different managers in Jose Mourinho and his successor Avram Grant.
Just five minutes in, Ballack unleashed a right-foot shot from 20 yards out, forcing a right-handed save from Friedel.
Two minutes later Florent Malouda was forcing another save from Friedel as Chelsea began to stamp their authority on the game.
Villa’s defence has been pretty watertight this season but they have not faced quality like this so far and Malouda was keen to test that digging out Anelka. The Frenchman got the better of Curtis Davies, leaving him prostrate but the resulting cross went begging.
Davies has been one of Villa’s stars this season but was at fault for the first goal. A slip allowed Ashley Cole through and he found Lampard who in turn put through Joe Cole.
The England international made no mistake in slamming the ball home past Friedel in the 21st minute.
Villa’s heads could have dropped but they have a good record of fightbacks and with Ashley Young beginning to cause Jose Bosingwa some problems, the visiting fans must have felt there was hope.
But when Anelka unleashed a cracking shot off Friedel’s bar minutes later, it was evident Luiz Felipe Scolari’s men were merely beginning to up the ante.
In the 28th minute Chelsea could have gone 2-0 up after Villa skipper Martin Laursen gave away a foul on Lampard, The England midfielder’s free-kick was on target but expertly palmed away by Villa’s senior American shot-stopper, who made save after save. One minute it was from Malouda, the next Anelka while at the other end Petr Cech was rarely troubled.
Villa’s only real chance came on 41 minutes when Ashley Young and Carew were unable to connect with a Gabriel Agbonlahor cross.
The visitors must have hoped the half would end with that solitary goal but they had forgotten about Anelka. It took the Chelsea star three attempts to get past Friedel for the second goal on 43 minutes after an incredible double save from the Villa keeper.
Ballack had picked up the loose ball, slamming it at Friedel who did well to palm it to his left. The ball rebounded only as far as Anelka who first forced a two-handed save from Friedel but was then able to knock the parried ball straight past the unfortunate keeper’s sprawling frame into the net.
Villa should have pulled one back after Agbonahor got the better of Cech on 71 minutes. The striker scooped the ball across goal but the advancing Carew couldn’t quite get a touch.
Mikel then blazed his 80th-minute effort high over the bar before Friedel again performed heroics – this time stopping a close-range Lampard effort with his knees.
A long range effort from Nigeo Reo-Coker in injury time might have given Villa some consolation but in the end Chelsea stretched their run to 86 games.
Scorers: J Cole (21) Anelka (43)
Chelsea (4-1-4-1): Cech, Boswinga, Ivanavic, Terry, A.Cole, Mikel, J.Cole, Ballack, Lampard, Malouda (Belletti, 83) Anelka (Di Santo, 45). Substitutes: Hilario, Bridge, Ferreira, Mancienne.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; L Young (Milner, 45), Davies (Cuellar, 45) Laursen, Shorey; Reo-Coker, Petrov, Barry, A Young; Carew (Harewood, 72), Agbonlahor. Substitutes: Guzan, Knight, Salifou, Gardner.
Referee: Chris Foy (Merseyside).
Bookings: Villa – Cuellar, Petrov, Shorey (all fouls).