Aston Villa (2) vs Chelsea (1) – Villa Shock Chelsea with Solid Defense and Clinical Finishing

With the chance to cement their place in next season’s Champions League, it was no wonder the pundits were calling for Chelsea to continue their outstanding run under Thomas Tuchel, a run that saw the Blues surge into third place of the Premier League with wins at Manchester City and over Leicester and reach the 2020 Champions League Final by beating Real Madrid.

Victory against a stumbling Aston Villa team seemed a cakewalk for a team festooned with scoring talent and a recently rejigged defense that had gone from porous to second best, after Manchester City, in the Premier League.

Meanwhile, Villa had just regained their talisman and leader, Jack Grealish, back in their line-up but short on match fitness.  Still, the Villans finally had real warm-blooded fans in the stadium and pride to play for.  The claret and blue, while well behind Chelsea in the standings, could be counted on to defend well and rebuff only the very best of shots thanks to world-class goalkeeping from Emi Martinez.

Able, for the first time in eons, to field a winning line-up in consecutive games (coming off an injury free win against Spurs), they featured an imposing backline of Konsa, Hause, Mings, and Targett.  What might have raised some eyebrows was the omission of Douglas Luiz who, for much of the season, had been an energetic and creative force as the holding midfielder alongside John McGinn.  Manager Dean Smith had eventually concluded that the youthful Brazilian was too intemperate, unnecessarily gifting penalty opportunities and freekicks in dangerous areas.  In his place, Marvelous Nakamba offered similar attributes with far less drama.  Either way, the consistency, work rate and talent of McGinn did much to assist the backline while being the catalyst for fast breaks.

The only significant omission from the Chelsea line-up was the injured N’Golo Kanté, but the Croatian international, Mateo Kovacic was a formidable replacement, especially alongside Jorginho.  What they had lost in the brilliance of Kanté they had gained in a midfield numerical advantage by lining up Azpilicueta and Chilwell at each wing.  The plan, for Chelsea, was to dominate possession while Villa’s was to withstand the onslaught and rely on fast breaks for opportunities.

The game followed that script with Chelsea imposing the early pressure from the kickoff.  While they looked dangerous, no clear opportunities were manufactured.  The Villans gradually found their feet around the half hour mark and managed to change the momentum.  Their self-belief was obvious.  It started with long-range efforts by McGinn and Traore.  Neither troubled Mendy, but they did suggest that the claret and blue had an interest in scoring and were quite capable.

Incisive moves down the left wing were the result of Grealish’s brilliance and the confidence of his teammates to get open.  They forced Chelsea into giving away freekicks in dangerous locations and that created a half-chance for Konsa. It was lost when he tried to control a bouncing ball rather than volleying.

Next Mings put a perfectly weighted, though speculative, ball down the left wing for Watkins to run onto.  Thiago Silva, who showed great skill throughout the game, was well positioned but, with the striker leaning into him, could only steer the ball out for a corner, the Villa’s first of the match just before halftime.

Watkins’ first instinct was to take it short, but the Blues were quickly back in numbers.  The visitors played as if the three points at stake were critical.  In fact, at that point, they were with their rivals (Liverpool and Leicester) winning their games and threatening to overtake them.  The Villa organized in their usual formation with their big men (Mings, Hause, and Konsa) strategically located.

What was not immediately obvious was that they had included a rare training ground wrinkle.  Traoré was initially positioned in the inside right position but, as Targett approached the kick, he pealed back and around, and found an open spot to just left of the penalty spot.  The ball skimmed across the turf and the Burkinabe international met it, first-time, with his left foot.

The plan was to ensure the ball stayed low and head just inside the near, left, post.  In fact, he over-compensated in his effort to keep the shot down and hit the shot into the ground causing the ball to gain topspin and clear the line of defenders.  That same topspin saw the ball dipping against the underside of the crossbar at the post leaving Mendy, in goal, the impossible challenge of preventing the ball entering the net.  That he injured himself against that left post vainly in the process vouched for his effort.

Chelsea appeared stunned.  Villa’s first shot on goal in the 43rd minute had given them the lead.  Aston Villa 1, Chelsea 0.  The Blues’ shock was apparent as they conceded two yellow cards (Jorginho and Werner) in the following minutes and Tuchel looked relieved to get his squad into the dressing room before matters got worse.  It also gave Arrizabalaga time to prepare to take over from the banged-up Mendy.

Shortly after the break, Chelsea manufactured two good opportunities.  First, Kovacic took advantage of a McGinn slip on the wet turf, carrying the ball deep down the inside left channel.  When he released the speedy Werner outside him, Villa were stretched and vulnerable.  A perfect pull-back from the German international was met by an open Pulisic who, conscious of Targett approaching chose a one-touch side-footed effort that was badly scuffed but almost became an own goal as it deflected off the Villa fullback.  Targett, Mings and Martinez all stared in relief as the ball went wide of the goalie’s right post.

Then Jorginho looped a high cross over the Villa backline for Mount to run onto and volley.  What could have been a stunning goal became fodder for Konsa as he blocked comfortably on the edge of 6-yard box.

From the rebound, Kovacic was suckered by Grealish into a foul to prevent a break.  The Croat joined the yellow card club and Villa had their turn to create opportunities.  First, Watkins did what he does best.  He chased down a long pass to the right goal-line and, under pressure, still found Grealish with a pass.  The Villa captain cut to the goal line and hammered a shot from a tight angle that hit the side-netting courtesy of a defender’s deflection.  Chelsea were unable to clear from the ensuing corner and Grealish found himself back at the goal line, only this time he saw Traoré 10 yards away and just inside the penalty area.

The pace of the pass was teasingly irresistible, and Jorginho bit!  He was within a split second of intercepting except Traoré is a little faster.  As Jorginho’s foot came towards the ball, the Burkinabe’s toe deflected the ball between the Italian’s legs.  Traoré’s attempt to move to the ball was blocked by the Italian’s dangling foot and Traoré went down.

The referee was right there and immediately pointed at the penalty spot.  While Jorginho threw his head back in disgust, he was directing his anger at himself.  The mandatory VAR check took seconds and El Ghazi stood ready to double Villa’s lead. 

The second Chelsea goalie was forced to face their first shot with the odds heavily loaded against them.  Villa’s very composed Dutch winger waited a split second for the keeper to lean to his right then hammered the ball well to his left.  Aston Villa 2, Chelsea 0 at 52 minutes.

The Blues were shell-shocked and faced a major uphill battle, three unanswered goals, to regain control of their European destiny.  They regrouped and the tide appeared to swing back in their favor.  Mount found Azpilicueta racing into the penalty area and, when the Spanish international was stripped of the ball by a defender’s tackle the ball fell perfectly for Wermer to tap into the Villa goal.  The only problem was that a flag had been raised indicating Azpilicueta had been offside when he received the pass.

Sixty minutes, and it was time for Tuchel to withdraw Jorginho and replace him with Ziyech and at 66 minutes, it was Havertz for Kovacic.  The latter change had an almost immediate impact.  A cross by Chilwell to the far post was met by the German international racing in at speed but, partly thanks to Targett’s slide from his right, Havertz’s shot went wildly over.  Martinez, who slid over to block, ended up needing treatment, winded by the forward.

Then, finally the Blues pressure paid off.  A one-two between Ziyech and Pulisic allowed the American to zip a pull-back from the goal line.  Werner preoccupied the defense and goalie but totally missed the pass allowing Chilwell to step forward at the far post and side-foot into the vacant net.  Martinez flung himself along his line and stopped the shot with his outstretched right hand.  It took the goal-line technology to confirm the ball had crossed the line.  In the 70th minute, Chelsea (and Chilwell) had finally scored.  Aston Villa 2, Chelsea 1.

Chelsea regained belief and if a Havertz effort had not been blocked by Mings in the 76th minutes and Azpilicueta had not blazed a shot a little high and wide from outside the area, it could have been a very different scenario.  Meanwhile Carney Chukwuemeka had been brought on for Traore.

Chelsea came close in the 87th minute when Chilwell almost duplicated his earlier effort, only this time the goalie’s heroics were successful, and the shot rebounded clear from his sliding body.  Then just to add another ingredient for good measure, Azpilicueta petulantly slapped Grealish across the face after a trip and received a red card for his troubles.

What could have been a joyous celebration for the claret and blue and consternation for the Blues, became a much more subdued response.  Liverpool had won and leap-frogged the Blues for the 3rd place.  Much to the Blues’ relief, Spurs had upset Leicester 4-2, making good on all of their four shots on target, the last two by Gareth Bale.  In the process, the Foxes had “gifted” their #4 position and the financial windfall of playing in the UEFA Champions League for the second year in a row to the Blues!  The Blues had dodged a bullet and they could face Manchester City in the Champions League final just six days hence with much less pressure.  Of course, winning would be awesome but they would still be playing among the best in Europe for another year.

For Villa, it was great finish to the COVID-19 season of “no fans” with a home victory (following an away victory at Tottenham Stadium) to the applause of their fans ringing in their ears.  It would be a great morale boost after the early promise (winning their first four games, including 7-2 over Liverpool), loss of Grealish for a long stretch, and dropping from top six contention.  Still, they managed to improve from 17th position to 11th in the league.

In fact, that represents a great launching point to make the next step – competing for one of those top four spots.  Consider their record against the third and fourth place finishers: a 2-1 squeaker loss in Liverpool after the drubbing they gave the Reds at Villa Park and a 1-1 tie at Stamford Bridge to go along with a 2-1 home victory over the Blues.  With Jack Grealish back it was clear that anything is possible!

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Ezri Konsa, Kortney Hause, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; John McGinn, Marvelous Nakamba, Bertrand Traoré (Chukwuemeka, 73’), Anwar El Ghazi (Ramsey, 79’), Grealish and Ollie Watkins

SUBS: Heaton, Elmohamady, Douglas Luiz, Jacob Ramsey, Wesley Moraes, Philogene-Bidace, Carney Chukwuemeka, Ross Barkley,

Chelsea (3-4-2-1): Edouard Mendy (Arrizabalaga, 45’); Reese James, Thiago Silva, Antonio Rudiger, Cesar Azpilicueta, Mateo Kovacic (Ziyech, 66’), Jorginho (Ziyech, 60’), Ben Chilwell, Timo Werner, Christian Pulisic, Mason Mount

SUBS: Arrizabalaga, Marcus Alonso, Andreas Christensen, Kurt Zouma, Billy Gilmour, Callum Hudson-Odoi, Hakim Ziyech, Olivier Giroud

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