Gerard Houllier breathed a huge sigh of relief as his side managed to end a roller-caster final 10 minutes at Stamford Bridge on a high. The story could have been so different with Villa leading with just 7 minutes remaining before a Didier Drogba equaliser set up a nail biting finish. When John Terry scored what appeared to be the winner just a minute from time Villa’s manager would have feared the wrath of owner Randy Lerner who made a rare away league appearance on Sunday. However, Marc Albrighton who made the error which led to Chelsea’s third, redeemed himself just minutes later with an inch perfect cross for the unmarked Ciaran Clark to nod home in injury time. A valiant display was rewarded with a well-deserved point in a game which the visitors could easily have won. Despite this the manager made some bold and much needed changes and I have to say he got it right in a 3-3 draw which went some way to repenting for the sides woeful second half display in the same fixture last year, which led to a 7 goal humiliation.
No doubt fearing for his job after a dismal run of form, Gerard Houllier made a number of changes to the side which had been thumped by Manchester City just days before. Experience over youth was, for once, the theory with Richard Dunne returning to the side after it was believed that he may have played his last game for the club.
Lichaj, Albrighton and Bannan were all dropped to the bench after the former two players had given away needless penalties in the last game. There was a return however, for Ciaran Clark who was trusted to play in another unfamiliar role at left back after an indifferent campaign from Stephen Warnock saw him dropped from the side altogether. He joined the likes of Stephen Ireland, John Carew and Luke Young who were also omitted with Cuellar filling in at right back.
The away side started the brighter without really creating any clear cut chances in the opening 20 minutes. Gabby Agbonlahor, playing in a wide role with the returning Ashley Young supporting Heskey up front, had the first snap shot at goal which went wide of Cech’s post from the edge of the box. Stewart Downing fired straight at Cech while a cross-cum-shot from Young forced the Chelsea keeper to tip over.
Despite a decent start from the away side in which they had prevented the Champions from playing, Chelsea made the breakthrough midway through the first half. A clumsy challenge from Collins on Malouda saw the referee point to the spot in a somewhat dubious decision. Collins went to head a looping ball while the little Frenchman appeared to just welcome the challenge and stand his ground. Once the contact came Malouda flung himself to the floor after showing no intent to challenge for the ball but the official saw it otherwise and awarded the penalty. A third in 2 games for Villa was converted by Frank Lampard to give Chelsea a fortunate lead.
The decision did not go down well with the visitors and a flurry of bookings followed with 7 yellow cards handed out to the Villa side with just two for Chelsea despite the hosts committing almost double the number of fouls. Didn’t really add up to me but hey-ho, Petrov, Friedel, Collins, Reo-Coker, Agbonlahor, Clark and Heskey were all booked in the game. Just thought I’d get them all out the way at once!
Villa had two glorious chances to equalise through Clark, who headed over despite being completely unmarked, and Dunne who found himself all alone from 4 yards out at an angle but the technique of a volley seemed a little too complex for the big centre back, firing over.
Houllier’s side finally got their thoroughly deserved leveller when Essien clattered into Reo-Coker after the poor Ferreira failed to clear his lines. After losing the ball on the flank, Clark harried the full back and blocked the attempted clearance with the ball falling to Reo-Coker who was clattered in the box. Ashley Young stepped up to take the penalty and made no mistake, thumping the ball into the roof of the net.
Villa had one final chance with the last effort of the half but Collins failed to beat Cech with a header from the far post in a very encouraging display from the away side.
Houllier would have no doubt asked for more of the same come the restart and he was not disappointed. Just two minutes into the second period an inch perfect cross from the right by Downing picked out Heskey who towered over deputising centre back Jeffrey Bruma, to head home. A deserved goal for the big man who played with fire in his considerable belly all game!
The Villa turnaround unsurprisingly led to a Chelsea rampage from there on with Villa defending resolutely for much of the second half. Much of this was down to veteran keeper Brad Friedel who pulled off a string of fantastic stops to keep his side in front.
Efforts from Lampard, Drogba and Ramires were all blocked before the Brazilian had the home side’s best chance of the game. Clark was finally found out in his new left back role though Ramires could only fire wide from an angle on the right summing up a poor afternoon for the summer signing.
Friedel saved superbly from Lampard who was played in by Malouda from close range. The midfielder fired too close to Friedel who did well to turn the ball over with a reaction stop. Replays showed Malouda was offside but it was not given and the American had to make the save. He then reiterated that he was no slouch for a 39-year-old, rushing out to deny Malouda at the Frenchman’s feet.
Bosingwa and Kalou made a difference, coming on for the ineffective Ferreira and Ramires and the Ivorian tested the resolve of Villa’s makeshift left side. A last ditch challenge was perfectly timed by Dunne who was not fooled by Kalou’s stepovers before making a crucial challenge in the box.
Chelsea made their final change introducing Sturridge for Anelka who, like many of Chelsea’s stars, failed to impress. Ancelotti’s men had the lions-share of possession and it deservedly paid off with 7 minutes remaining. A ball into the box from Terry was brought down on the chest by Drogba with the ball falling to Kalou. Friedel made another fantastic save from close in but this time the rebound fell kindly to Drogba who found the smallest of gaps between four Villa defender’s on the line to equalise.
The home side then pressed for the winner while Agbonlahor had to be replaced by Albrighton. It seemed that the winger had made a costly mistake when losing the ball on the edge of the Villa box. The resulting ball in was met by the head of Drogba whose effort was again brilliantly kept out by Friedel but again, the ball fell to Chelsea and John Terry placed his shot well into the corner of the net.
The travelling Villa fans were devastated along with the manager, as it appeared Chelsea had nicked all three points. Villa, and Albrighton in particular, then showed immense character to level the game once more in stoppage time. The ball broke to the edge of the box were the youngster was able to cut inside and float in a dream cross for Ciaran Clark to nod home from just yards out. The defender stole in unmarked and capped an impressive display with a third goal of the season.
Fantastic entertainment at Stamford Bridge in a real game of two halves with Villa dominating the first and Chelsea coming back strong in the second. Many have since said it’s 2 points dropped for the home side but Ancelotti can feel relieved that his side even managed a point with defeat looming so close to full time. A draw was a fair result however and a complete tactical overhaul from Houllier paid off in what could prove to be a massive turning point for the manager and his side.
Villa Player Ratings
Brad Friedel – 9 – back to his best, playing like a mere 37-year-old!
Carlos Cuellar – 7 – solid in his less convicncing right back role
James Collins – 6 – strong but clumsy challenge led to opener
Richard Dunne – 7 – drop may have brought the best out of the Irishman
Ciaran Clark – 7 – worked hard defensively and in attack, scoring winner
Stewart Downing – 7 – fairly quiet but superb cross for second
Stiliyan Petrov – 6 – decent but overrun at times, improving
Nigel Reo-Coker – 7 – encouraging display full of energy
Gabby Agbonlahor – 6 – woked hard but looked uncomfortable on left
Ashley Young – 7 – lively return, deserved his goal
Emile Heskey – 8 – big and aggressive performance, at his peak
Marc Albrighton – 6 – nealry lost game but atoned with pin-point assist
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