Chelsea manager Avram Grant may have taken his role as the messiah of entertaining football a tad too seriously. After a bruising encounter against Aston Villa which was full of drama and plot twists, Chelsea fans can be forgiven for feeling heady after the topsy-turvy ride and pondering on what went wrong with the team.
A quick summary in case you missed the action - eight goals, 3 dismissals, 2 penalties but no winners. Chelsea FC came out of this match in worse shape. At the current rate which the Blues are exhausting their best resources (they have already suffered casualties from a pyhrric victory against Everton), it is no surprise if Grant’s team is unrecognizable before the turn of the new year.
The dismissal of Ashley Cole and Ricardo Carvalho add on to the injury count of John Terry, Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard and Florent Malouda. This may force a pairing of Alex da Costa with Tal Ben Haim in central defense – a shaky partnership at best.
Aston Villa were full of attacking verve right from the start, they had after all inflicted a 2-0 defeat on a Chelsea team led by José Mourinho in September, thus they had no reason to accord Grant and his tattered team any respect. In the 14th minute, they took first bite of the cherry when Shaun Maloney scored, latching on to John Carew’s header from Agbonlahor’s cross.
The second Villa goal was gifted by Petr Cech, who have made alarming (and crucial) mistakes of late. Maloney, in the 44th minute, shot straight at Cech, it wasn’t exactly a scorcher and Cech got his hands behind the ball, but he failed to hold on to it and the ball trickled over the line. The expression on Cech’s face was priceless, a mixture of embarrassment and disbelief.
To concede such a goal will have been unthinkable in his heyday. It was the Czech’s second blunder in rapid succession following William Gallas’s winner for Arsenal 10 days ago. Grant should take the blame for rushing Cech into the fray right after the medical team cleared his fitness.
Chelsea squad were 2-0 down, but it was Villa who began to look jittery. Zat Knight made a clumsy challenge on Ballack which resulted in an early shower for him. Martin O’Neill said that he would consider an appeal as he believed that Ballack had fallen despite minimal contact. In retrospect, the sending off was more for the fact that Knight was the last defender than for malice or violence.
Phil Dowd, the referee, was barracked for giving the penalty but no matter, as Villa, despite their lead, had lost any realistic chance to cause an upset after they reshuffled the team to make up for the shortage. Andriy Shevchenko converted the penalty, firing the ball into the bottom right-hand corner of Scott Carson’s net, trimming Chelsea’s deficit to 2-1.
Villa were more spirited in the first half but it was Chelsea who took the match by the scruff of the neck in the second half. From 25 yards, Shevchenko proved the adage about class being permanent. By turning scorer **** playmaker, he rolled back the years of lethargy and began to justify a substantial portion of his transfer fee. His drive into the top corner gave Chelsea the equalizer after 50 minutes.
This was Shevchenko’s day and he was not done yet. In the 66th minute, the Ukrainian exhibited some beautiful skill as he held off Gareth Barry with a pirouette and then fed the perfect through-ball to Alex, who scored to put Chelsea in the lead at 3-2.
Chelsea fans erupted into wild cheers for Shevchenko and rarely have they been so upset to see him being substituted. If he had stayed on to score a hat-trick and show the same kind of desire to win for the rest of the games, Chelsea’s opponents should be worried as a poacher of his calibre never stays hungry for long.
Villa, however, had enough fight in them to give Chelsea a miserable time. Just when the Blues thought they had sewn up the match, a Villa leveller came through a crisp Martin Laursen volley from Young’s free-kick.
In the absence of Lampard (their omnipotent savior on many occasions), it was left to Ballack, just back from injury and in his first Premiere League match of the season, to show he is once again fit to lead his country and club. From a set-piece, he floated a shot past the left hand of Scott Carson in the 88th minute. “There’s no contact,” O’Neill lamented of the incident involving Laursen and Joe Cole for which Dowd awarded the free-kick.
The final minutes prove to be a heartache for Grant. Not only was an assured three points snatched from them, but they end up losing another senior player. Ashley Cole had to endure an instant one-game ban after he was shown the red card for conceding the penalty from which Villa levelled the match at 4-4. The timing couldn’t be worse as Chelsea’s defense is already stretched to the limit.
It had looked as if Cole had initially blocked Agbonlahor’s effort with head and shoulder, but the assistant referee immediately signaled for the offense which Gareth Barry duly converted from the spot.
Right now, Chelsea is almost like a toothless tiger, fierce but ultimately harmless, without Drobga. Nicolas Anelka is highly regarded as a viable backup (Manchester United has expressed interest too), and his disaffection with the Bolton Wanderers makes him a likely target to move in January. It was four years since Chelsea have conceded four goals, with Petr Cech looking uninspiring and barely fit while Carlo Cudicini is out, it is likely another high profile goalkeeper could be coming in.
There is a beleaguered air about Grant as questions start popping up on his ability to steer Chelsea FC amid the tempest of injuries and red cards. He said exasperatedly: “I am waiting for the day I will have all my players.” No prizes then for guessing what is Grant’s wishes for the new year.