Aston Villa (1), Chelsea (3) – Villa miss McGinn and Gerrard

There was palpable nervous energy emanating from the fans at Villa Park on Sunday.  The shock news that the manager, Steven Gerrard, and two key players, John McGinn and Ashley Young were going to be missing had a strong effect on the faithful.  Hope replaced confidence as the prevailing mood. 

There was still lots to justify that hope.  Our Villans had played extremely well since Steven Gerrard had taken over as manager and, even in the two losses (to Man City and Liverpool), the team had performed well and were always in the game.  Against, a teetering Chelsea, they had enough positive attributes, even with the necessitated changes, to win at home.

The early evidence suggested that Chelsea were far from a spent force, but our team responded well to what they faced.  The inclusion of Ings gave he and Watkins the opportunity to play a full game with dual strikers.  The 4, 3, 1, 2 line-up saw Sanson filling-in for McGinn, while Buendia was given the task of being the link-man behind the strikers.

Chelsea, meanwhile, maintained the back-three that has worked well for them with Thiago Silva’s experience and skill flanked by the fast and capable Rüdiger and Chalobah.  In midfield, they featured James, Kanté, Jorginho, and Alonso, all international-level stars. If the Blues had a weakness, it was up-front where they were forced to use Pulisic as a false-9 given Lukaku’s lack of match fitness.

The early play suggested that expert predictions were correct.  Chelsea was able to control the midfield, but lacked the ability to turn possession into goal-scoring chances.

Our Villans strategy of waiting for the quick break worked as early as the 11th minute when Watkins was put in the clear down the left after a hustling interception and perfect pass by Buendia.  Watkins had a path open to Ings arriving at the 6-yard box and his pass would have been perfect if not for Silva extending his right foot to deflect the ball behind for a corner.

If that had been the Reds’ Robertson and Salah, the ball would have been hit harder and higher, giving no opportunity for an interception and Salah would have made the finish look easy.  I can imagine how different the trajectory of the game would have been, if we had scored on that, our first, opportunity.   For one, we would have settled the question of the wisdom of a dual striker.

We had other similar opportunities early on.  Just two minutes later, Ings was fed a pass that found him ono-on-one with Silva deep in the penalty area.  The experienced Silva did not panic, just waited for Danny to pull the ball back onto his preferred right foot and the 37-year-old Brazilian calmly deflected the goal-bound shot out for a corner.

Then, Luiz, our Brazilian international, gathered the ball just outside his own penalty area and volleyed a pass deep down the left for Watkins to run onto just ahead of Chalobah.  Our striker did well to gather the ball in the penalty area and turn sharply inside. Villa fans were imagining a repeat of what Ollie did against Brighton, a curling right-foot stunner ricocheting off Mendy’s left post and into the net behind him. Chalobah must have seen the same clip and the right back stopped on a dime and stretched his own right foot just in time and deflected the shot clear.  Another corner.

Chelsea, meanwhile, created their own chances, but they tended to be from distance and our defense was able to block them or, occasionally, conceded corners. 

The game was end-to-end action and, with a little good fortune, our Villans gained the lead.  Yet another incursion down the left resulted in Watkins drawing a crowd.  He wisely slipped the ball out to Targett on the left and our fullback hit a beautiful cross first time.  It looked dangerous enough heading toward the penalty spot, with lots of whip, that no self-respecting defender could ignore.

Too bad for Reese-James that he was slightly ahead of the ball and it flashed off his noggin and over the stranded Mendy and into the far corner of the net.  Aston Villa 1, Chelsea 0 in the 28th minute.

Our team responded well, recognizing that there was a long time to go in the game and they would need to be just as vigilant defensively for another hour or so. 

Chelsea, and especially, Kanté, raised their game.  Hudson-Odoi got into the penalty area on the left and rifled a cross into the danger zone, but Cash got a piece of it and the danger was cleared, but just for a moment.  The French international sprayed a pass out to Alonso on the wing and he immediately fed Hudson-Odoi cutting behind Cash.  Our right back, who had been playing excellently, thought he could reach the pass before the fleet of foot winger, but he was wrong and tripped Odoi in the area.  Penalty, no question.

Jorginho did his usual hop and skip, and when Martinez went to his left, the Italian parked the ball to his right and into the net.  Aston Villa 1, Chelsea 1 in the 34th minute.

Initially deflated by the loss of the lead, Villa lost a gear in their play, letting the Blues play out of the back with less pressure. Chelsea, for their part, did not seem particularly motivated.  Perhaps, they were waiting for another gift goal. 

That changed when Sanson intercepted a midfield pass and took off to the right to get an open channel.  Smooth and fast, Morgan was able to find enough space to look up and see Watkins breaking for the box.

The French international curved a perfect pass for our striker to collect at the D, one-on-one, with Mendy.  The Senegalese international is large, agile, fast, and alert, and he had already smelled the danger.  He arrived a step before Watkins and cleared the danger.

Matty Cash followed with his own little thievery, and he drove with the ball deep into the Blues half before finding Ings, only for his shot to be blocked again.

Then, Watkins looked to have set up Ings as he broke outside Silva on the right and squared across for his fellow striker to meet at the near post, but Silva managed to get his toe in the way and the deflection went straight into the grateful arms of Mendy.

Chelsea’s midfield kept pressing and created some opportunities only for our strong backline to snuff them out before they became dangerous.  Targett was particularly effective, doing to Mount and James what he had done to Mo Salah in the Liverpool game, win all the one-on-one battles.

Going into the halftime break, with Gerrard on the touchline, we Villa fans would have been confident that the manager would say the right things to focus the team on making sure to turn chances we had been getting into more shots on goal and to be sure to keep a clean sheet in the second half.

As for the likelihood that the Chelsea manager, Thomas Tuchel, would bring on Romelu Lukaku in the second half, Gerrard would have had warned them about what Lukaku did in our fixture earlier in the season at Stamford Bridge – clinically-finished a half-chance.

Without Gerrard’s physical presence, whatever message was given appeared to deflate the team.  On resumption, our Villans did not seem to be able to impose themselves on the game and were drawn increasingly into a defensive cocoon. Without Pulisic, as striker, to bully and regain possession, we had a hard time.

It did not help that Mings got flattened between Martinez who came out to punch clear a floater of a cross and Lukaku who was intent on going through Tyrone to get his head on the ball.  Outweighed by the Belgian international by 50 pounds, our center back needed treatment to continue.

Perhaps that was in the back of Mings’s mind the next time a cross came over for him to compete with Romelu.  This time the cross had more zip on it and Lukaku did not have Martinez close by.  Mings found himself flatfooted and tried to hip check the striker.  Nothing doing!  The $100 million offseason signing was hardly even slowed and his glancing header sent the ball flying into the corner of the net with Martinez rooted to the line.  Aston Villa 1, Chelsea 2.

Before and after the goal, Chelsea made two substitutions: Silva (by Christensen) and Kanté (by Kovacic) and the loss of such key players was hardly noticeable, such was the poor play of our Villans.  That the interim management (a committee) waited until the last 15 minutes for their first substitution suggests a combination of lack of game-changing options and indecision.

By the time that Lukaku burst through, on a break-away in injury time, to force Konsa into a conceding a penalty, our goose was already well and truly cooked.  Naturally, Jorginho scored again with ease. Aston Villa 1, Chelsea 3.

Let’s hope that Gerrard and McGinn are available Sunday so we can get this train back on the track.  Thanks to another unnecessary yellow card, we will be without Mings.  Still, either Tuanzebe or Hause should be sturdy enough that we won’t miss him.

Aston Villa (4, 3, 1, 2): Martinez, Mings, Konsa, Targett, Cash, Sanson (El Ghazi 76′), Jacob Ramsey, Buendía (Carney Chukwuemeka 74′), Douglas Luiz, Watkins, Ings (Traoré 73′)

Subs: Iroegbunam, Hause, Steer, Carney Chukwuemeka, Traoré, Trézéguet, Tuanzebe, Davis, El Ghazi

Chelsea (3, 4, 2, 1): Mendy, Rüdiger, Thiago Silva (Christensen 52′), Chalobah (Lukaku 45′), James, Kanté (Kovacic 63′), Alonso, Jorginho, Hudson-Odoi, Mount, Pulisic

Subs: Arrizabalaga, Barkley, Azpilicueta, Lukaku, Ñíguez, Kovacic, Sarr, Ziyech, Christensen

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