Chelsea (1) vs Aston Villa (1) – Villa Gain a Point at Stamford Bridge

A visit to Stamford Bridge meant lots for Villa fans to think about. Last year, Chelsea did the double over the Claret and Blues by the identical scores of 2-1 and deservedly so. In a season that was almost catastrophic, those losses stung.

This time Villa arrived in infinitely better shape with key additions to the squad, 25 points from 13 games, eight shutouts and a run of eight wins when they scored first (against Sheffield Utd., Fulham, Liverpool, Leicester, Arsenal, Wolves, WBA, and Crystal Palace). Of those fixtures, five were away from Villa Park.

This run might have been enough to give the Villans reason to feel that the game was theirs to lose. Instead, they had to have been somewhat irked that they were missing their defensive standout, Tyrone Mings. The questionable officiating that led to his double yellow card penalty (a one-game suspension) placed a shadow over the squad who ran onto the field on the late afternoon of a drab December Monday in London.

This meant that Kortney Hause and Ezri Konsa, no strangers to each other, would partner as the two center backs with Engels on the bench if needed. Of his bench mates, none had seen much in the way of first team appearances this year and none could be considered a game changer.

The Chelsea bench was strikingly more impressive, mostly because of what Chelsea had paid for them – a total in excess of $200 million. No, they were not being saved for a more important fixture. The sad reality was that, for all their off-season transfer activity, the team had laid some doozies lately. The eleven starters, also very talented, were under immense pressure to improve upon their poor recent performances.

The significance of bench strength was amplified by the short turnaround of this Christmas fixture with only one day’s rest since the Boxing Day game. There would be some tired legs in the latter stages and Villa manager Smith must have envied Frank Lampard’s options.

One other concern that faced Villa fans when Chelsea kicked-off was the remarkably lax response the last time they were in town (facing West Ham). Then, they failed to mark Ogbonna from a corner and were a goal behind within two minutes. Without Mings’ reassuring presence, that alone was cause to hold one’s breath.

Fortunately, the Villa players, themselves, exhibited no apprehension and each play brought relief to the faithful. From the whistle, Mount fed the ball back to Christensen who lofted it high into Villa territory on the left. Olivier Giroud, the French international, rose above Konsa and headed it on, but Cash was backing up the play and volleyed the ball with his left foot towards Watkins, a little over the halfway line. He was beyond Chilwell, who had moved up on the attack, but was closely attended to by Rudiger, Chelsea’s left center back.

Rudiger was well aware that he had no support behind him so, when the young striker received the ball on his right foot and expertly controlled it and pivoted toward the right touch line, with space behind, the experienced defender quickly got a foot in to clear the ball out for a throw-in.

Cash came up to take the throw and Traoré, rather than work possession down the line took a more adventurous route, hooking the ball towards the left flank where Targett was available. The ball was under hit and Hunter-Odoi intercepted and, with Mount and Giroud, set-off on an attack that looked dangerous until Traoré, catching up with the play, intercepted and immediately swept the ball 40 yards up the field to Watkins shadowed by Christensen. Watkins comfortably cushioned the ball back to Grealish who passed it on to McGinn only for Giroud to nip in, forcing McGinn to foul the Frenchman. Kante took a very quick free kick and set Hudson-Odoi off up the wing with Targett rushing behind him to get back into his defensive position.

Initially the situation looked threatening with Hause having to vacate his center position to close the winger down. The winger chose not to go to the goal line to put over a cross, likely because he was ahead of the other forwards. Instead, he carried inside to the edge of the penalty area where Targett and Grealish had just arrived on the scene. An attempt to slide a pass through to a blue shirt was intercepted by the quick feet of Grealish. As the Villa captain gained control of the bouncing ball, he was faced by Azpilicueta necessitating more Grealish trickery to avoid the Chelsea veteran. Experience told the full back that he was not going to win any of these one-on-ones, so he threw his body into the challenge and flattened Grealish. To avoid getting a yellow card for the infringement, Azpilicueta jumped up wagging his finger, suggesting mortification at the call. It worked. Just a Villa free kick.

Less than a minute has passed in the game, and Grealish had broken up a dangerous situation and got fouled for his troubles. Villa fans could relax. This was the way that most Villa games had started this season, especially the ones they had won. Villa continued to look lively and ambitious for an away team. When Chilwell did receive a pass deep down the left wing, Traoré tracked back and broke up the play. Chelsea got a corner shortly after and turned that into a shot on goal, sort of. The ball bounced off Rudiger and trickled to Martinez. He picked it up and cleared. That was at 4:53.

A minute later, it was Villa’s turn. A clearance by Chelsea arrived at the Villa’s backline and they passed it along to Konsa positioned on the right. He floated a perfect pass down the right wing with backspin, so it would not cross the goal line. Watkins ran onto it and, with Rudiger and Chilwell closing in, chose to immediately cross the ball to an open El Ghazi on the opposite side of the area. The Dutchman controlled it well but was already faced with Azpilicueta and Kante. He feinted to dribble and then laid it to his right for his captain, Jack G., who eased to his right, and past Kante, then hit a powerful shot aimed three feet off the ground and heading towards the far corner of the net. Mendy, the Senegalese international goalkeeper, was ready and hurled his body to his left and used two strong hands to push it around the post for a corner with Luiz and Watkins standing by, looking for crumbs. There were none. Villa’s first shot at 5:58.

The corner led to another shot and even better opportunity. Grealish drove the corner hard along the turf to El Ghazi, uncovered at the edge of the area. Mount rushed over but the recently prolific winger hit a low drive that might have beaten the goalie at the near post except that was where Giroud had stationed himself. The ball caromed around and landed in Mendy’s hands.

Equally reassuring to Villa fans as El Ghazi getting opportunities and making the most of them, was this season’s defensive play of Matt Targett. This was exemplified when Hudson Odoi found room on the left side of the field and zipped a long pass to Azpilicueta in the winger’s vacated spot on the right. As the ball was traveling, the greatly improved Villa left back was racing over to cover. Just as he arrived, Azpilicueta shaped to curve a cross into the Villa area with five Blues already in the box and closing in. Targett jumped and the ball ricocheted off him into touch. Danger snuffed.

The next danger was self-inflicted. Grealish seemed unsure who he was passing back to from the left wing, deep in his own half, and Konsa and Cash both hesitated as the ball went between them. Pulisic does not know how to hesitate and he nipped between, took possession, and rounded Konsa as he reached shooting range. The American international was a little off balance and the shot veered just wide of Martinez’s left upright. Too close for comfort.

The theme continued with Mount finding room down the left, then pulling a sharp pass back to Pulisic, again, this time well-balanced and positioned. What he could not control was John McGinn’s reflexes, speed, and bravery as he blocked the shot within a couple of yards of where it was taken.

With fifteen minutes gone, the Blues were establishing a degree of dominance, though Villa displayed composure and the potential for fast breaks. From one such break, Rudiger cleared and Kante had an opportunity to gain possession of a bouncing ball with space and support in the midfield. Much to the French international’s frustration, Grealish applied his speed and skill to get his body in the way and, when Kante could not stop on a dime, the Villa captain let himself be pushed to the ground. This technique is something that Grealish has mastered and partly accounts for his being the most fouled player in the Premier League.

As well as slowing the momentum of their opponents, this ploy also results in dead ball plays and scoring opportunities. This was one such occasion. Grealish’s curving cross from the right side was at a perfect height and length for the Villa heads who raced into the penalty area. Hause, who had scored with a header just two days prior, was the one to reach it. This time, he mistimed his run and got himself ahead of the trajectory and could only head high and wide.

Minutes later, a foray down the left saw El Ghazi put over a cross with Mendy in heavy traffic causing him to spill the ball away from his goal but towards Matty Cash who was following the play in. Somebody other than a backline defender would have had an excellent chance to give the visitors the lead, but Cash waited for a bounce and was being tackled as he shot over.

Then at 33 minutes, Chelsea found their rhythm again with Mount and Pulisic trading passes around on the left to create space for Chilwell to get open to receive a perfect feed. The cross was zipped over a couple of feet off the ground and was dangerous merely because of the presence of Giroud. Anticipating the early cross, he ran towards the near post to evade his markers and, even at that height, was able to contort his body to get a strong header on target. In fact, the ball was heading just inside the post and angled to the ground, just in front of the goal line. Despite Martinez’s great dive and his hand being there, the ball squeezed under and into the back of the net. A brilliant all-around goal that the visitors would have found more palatable if Traoré had not been guilty of first-degree ball-watching. He failed to track back, and Chilwell was wide open. 34 minutes gone and Chelsea 1, Aston Villa 0.

Matters got stickier for the Villa over the next while as Chelsea pressed for a second goal that would have cemented a victory. They came close. With Jorginho jumping to get a head on a McGinn pass that would have given Watkins an opening for a break on the Chelsea goal, the smallest defection turned into another attack and dangerous cross. Then, Mount dribbling through tentative tackles in the penalty box, was clear for a shot on goal but, with a bad angle, had to resort to power to beat Martinez and the ball flew inches over.

Hudson-Odoi was becoming influential finding pockets of space and zipping passes across the field to open teammates. Mount, meanwhile, was pouncing on any loose ball in the mid-field and a decent pass by Targett was intercepted and fed to Pulisic one-on-one with Cash in the box. What looked like another Pulisic goal evaporated when the off-season signing from Nottingham Forest made a brilliant tackle and came away with the ball.

Villa withstood Chelsea’s pressure and coasted into half-time realizing that they could hold off the Blues offense and they just needed to get a goal themselves. Undoubtedly, Smith would have had a word with Traoré who, other than a lax period, had been covering a lot of ground and always looked comfortable on the ball.

The visitors started the second half with more intent going forward and it soon paid off. Grealish beat Christensen to a loose ball in the host’s end of the field but the defender’s leg brought down the Villan. With the ball finding El Ghazi open, the advantage rule was played, and El Ghazi attempted a cross that was blocked but came right back to Grealish. Villa’s captain sprayed the ball to the right wing where Cash was in space. Meanwhile, Christensen stayed down holding his shin. With no obvious reason to suggest he needed immediate attention, play continued and Cash put over a perfect cross that found El Ghazi open at the far post (Azpilicueta had covered for his fallen center back, defending Watkins). The Dutchman calmly met the cross with the inside of his right foot and directed the ball between Mendy’s open legs. 50 minutes gone and Chelsea 1, Aston Villa 1.

The hosts were rattled by the ease with which their lead had evaporated and groused to the referee about his failure to stop play, though with little conviction. Christensen rejoined play with no obvious discomfort. Villa started to press further up the field to see if they could force an error and another opportunity. McGinn was fed the ball with some space to work in, albeit 30 yards from the Chelsea goal. With little support, he thought “why not” and pummeled a shot with his favored left foot. Mendy had perfect visibility but was totally unprepared for the velocity of the shot that clipped the crossbar on its way over. The goalie breathed a sigh of relief.

Within a minute, Chelsea crafted a good play that led to a good effort from just outside the box by Hudson-Odoi that he hit with power and curve towards Martinez’s left corner, but the goalie dived and comfortably saved.

That was the cue for Werner and Havertz to replace Jorginho and Giroud. Both Germans displayed freshness and intent, but the well-organized Villa defense offered no easy routes to apply pressure. When a long-range effort was blocked and landed in front of Werner, he had only a split second to respond with Luiz pouncing and he could not keep his shot of the bouncing ball from ballooning over the bar.

Somewhat surprising was the impact of Villa’s 19-year-old Jacob Ramsey in the 81st minute who was evidently brought on to help maintain the away point. Seconds on the field, he was close to Watkins who had a bouncing pass to deal with on the edge of the penalty area. An excellent layoff from the striker’s noggin had the fresh sub in possession facing the redoubtable Rudiger. No problem, he just shaped a shot with the inside of his right foot that almost curved into Mendy’s left corner with the goalie frozen to the line a second time. Not a bad first touch at Stamford Bridge.

With the Villa happy to take the point and the Blues running out of ideas, much of the rest of the game was played in the neutral zone. When the final whistle blew it appeared that Smith was doing his best to stifle a satisfied smile. Frank Lampard, meanwhile, looked exceedingly frustrated about the two points squandered.

Villa’s next game does not get any easier, at Manchester United on New Year’s Day, but this result suggests that, with Mings back, they have nothing to fear and will likely feel more confident of gaining a point from the encounter than Man U will feel about winning.

Chelsea (4-3-3): Mendy; Azpilicueta, Christensen, Rudiger, Chilwell, Kante, Jorginho, Mount, Hudson-Odoi, Giroud, Pulisic

SUBS: Arrizabalaga, Thiago Silva, Abraham, Werner (s 72′), Tomori, Kovacic, Gilmour, Havertz (s 72′), Emerson Palmieri

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Kortney Hause, Ezri Konsa, Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, Anwar El Ghazi, Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traoré, Jack Grealish (captain)

SUBS: Heaton, Elmohamady, Taylor, Hourihane, Engels, Guilbert, Nakamba, Davis (s 87′), Ramsey (s 81′)

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