In the end it would be difficult to argue that either side deserved to win this game, and a draw was probably a fair result. Both sides had chances to break the deadlock – Branislav Ivanovic and Nicholas Anelka both hit the woodwork for Chelsea, whilst Ciaran Clark hit the post for Villa and Stephen Ireland and Nigel Reo-Coker missed golden opportunities to win it. However, neither keeper was seriously called into action.
Chelsea were without six first team squad players through injury. Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba were the two major absentees, but Salomon Kalou, Daniel Sturridge, Alex and Yossi Benayoun were all unavailable. It meant that Chelsea had four teenager outfield players on the substitute bench. However, they were still able to field a strong team for this match.
Whilst much focus was on Chelsea’s injury problems, Aston Villa were without a number of first team players. Gabby Agbonlahor, Emile Heskey, Luke Young and Marc Albrighton all missed out through injury, whilst Richard Dunne was forced off after only 13 minutes with an ankle injury that required four stitches. John Carew, Stephen Ireland and Habib Beye all got opportunities to shine in their places.
Aston Villa started the brightest and should have gone ahead after only two minutes. The excellent Stewart Downing dispossessed Florent Malouda and fed Stephen Ireland, who put the ball just wide of the far post. John Carew was denied by a good save from Petr Cech only three minutes later as the home side pushed for the opener.
Whilst Chelsea had plenty of possession in the first half, they created very little, and it was Stephen Ireland who came closest shortly before half time, when his shot from the edge of the area was blocked brilliantly by Ivanovic.
After the break, the young Gael Kakuta was replaced by Yury Zhirkov, and Chelsea looked far more dangerous with Florent Malouda stinging Friedal’s hands with a shot from the edge of the area. Friedal saved well again as Nicholas Anelka and Chelsea began to look the more threatening side.
Branislav Ivanovic came closest as his powerful header from Florent Malouda’s cross thundered against the post with Friedal beaten, but barely a minute later, Ciaran Clark’s flick from Ashley Young’s free-kick beat Petr Cech, only to rebound off the post, and Ireland was unable to convert the rebound.
Chelsea’s best chance came in the 88th minute, when Nicholas Anelka met Ashley Cole’s cross, but somehow his header from four yards bounced into the ground and up onto the bar. And he was almost punished late in injury time as Nigel Reo-Coker dispossessed the youngster, Josh McEachran, but his chip over Petr Cech dribbled wide of the post.
From a Villa perspective, I felt that Chelsea were there for the taking today. Without Drogba and Lampard, they lacked much of their usual structure and attacking threat. Whilst some people may criticise Villa for a defensive performance, particularly in the second half, the tactics were spot on. Almost any team trying to play an open attacking game against Chelsea will be picked apart, so the onus is on Chelsea to break teams down.
The choice to play Stewart Downing on the right against Ashley Cole was spot on. He had some success against him, and tracked back well to keep Chelsea’s dangerous left-hand side partnership of Malouda and Cole fairly quite. Stephen Ireland had a few moments in his withdrawn striking role, but struggled to get into the game, whilst John Carew had a disappointing game once again. Indeed, it seemed as though young Nathan Delfouneso won more headers in his short period on the pitch than Carew had done.
I also felt it was a poor performance from Lee Mason, the referee. He did not favour either side, but was simply rubbish throughout. Plenty of debatable free-kicks given, and the yellow card for Josh McEachran was quite bizarre for what was a pretty good tackle.
Brad Friedal – 7: He didn’t really have too much to do, but pulled off decent saves from Malouda and Anelka in the second half.
Habib Beye – 7: Had a difficult task up against Malouda, but considering it was his first league start of the season, he coped relatively well. Pulled out of position occasionally, but no serious mistakes.
Stephen Warnock – 8.5: Struggled for form recently, but was outstanding today. Except for one mistimed tackle on Anelka, he was rarely beaten and prevented any real threat from that side of the pitch.
Richard Dunne – 5: One poor piece of defending in his short period on the pitch, before limping off with a deep gash on his ankle. He still seems to be struggling for form this season.
James Collins – 8: Marshalled the defence brilliantly. He battled well in the air and made some great tackles to break up Chelsea attacking moves.
Stewart Downing – 8.5: He was impressive both with and without the ball today. Was able to get past Ashley Cole a couple of times, and covered back excellently to support Habib Beye against Malouda and Cole.
Ashley Young – 7: A few bits of quality, but he struggled to get into the game. He worked hard, but the consistency just wasn’t there today.
Nigel Reo-Coker – 7.5: Worked hard as usual and made plenty of tough challenges. If only he could have put away the chance in injury time.
Stiliyan Petrov – 7.5: Similar to Reo-Coker, he worked hard and made a number of good tackles. Tired toward the end, but it was a tough job against a very good Chelsea midfield trio.
Stephen Ireland – 7: Unable to get into the game for long periods, but had a brilliant chance early on that he was unable to take. Showed a few glimpses of what he is capable of.
John Carew – 5: Poor performance from the big man, and simply adds fuel to the suggestions that his legs have gone. Looked lazy at times and was second to almost every ball.
Ciaran Clark – 7.5: Solid performance once again from the youngster. Apart from one misplaced pass, he looked comfortable on the ball and was unlucky not to grab the goal when his header hit the post.