Chelsea give Guus Hiddink the perfect start

21 February 2009 05:02
To the neutral, the attraction of this match was the opportunity it afforded Aston Villa to embed themselves in the top four at the possible expense of Chelsea. But it was evident, even in the 18 minutes before Nicolas Anelka scored the only goal, that the away team were the better equipped. And we should have been able to predict it.

It was not just that class told (though it did) or that Chelsea benefited from new management (who knows?); both of these sides, the faded former champions and the Champions League aspirants, have obtained a majority of their points on their travels this season. This is especially true of Villa, who have now won only five of 13 home matches while winning 10 of 13 away. They do struggle to open defences here and visitors come aware that, if they blunt Ashley Young's threat from the left flank, there is little else to worry about.

Seldom has Young been as quiet as on this occasion. Chelsea's right-back, Jose Bosingwa, gave a masterly display of attack as the best form of defence, forcing Young on to his back foot with elegant forays. Towards the end Bosingwa might even have scored when he sprinted, executed a sweet one-two with Didier Drogba, and made Brad Friedel save sharply. Only Frank Lampard contributed more to Guus Hiddink's satisfactory initiation as caretaker-manager. The England midfielder offered skill - most delightfully the turn, dart and pass that made the goal - and sweat in equal measure.

"I've been an opponent of his a few times," said Hiddink, "so it's good to have him on my side. He made the goal very impressively and Frank's a good lad - as they say here - for the team." The first-half performance, Hiddink added, had been especially pleasing, with its accent on attack. Afterwards, he conceded, Chelsea had shown that passing entails movement. "We were static - and that gave us a problem. Aston Villa came at us with these big guys, their air force. But it was good to get away with the points."

They were secured, as it turned out, by the most handsome move of the match, in which Lampard wheeled and spurted between Curtis Davies and Stilian Petrov before laying a perfect ball into the path of Anelka. The Frenchman deserved credit too; he times those runs almost by instinct. He also knows to shoot early and so, while Friedel got a touch to the ball, it was not decisive enough to prevent Anelka from celebrating his 15th Premier League goal of the season (he has 21 in all).

A five save by Friedel from John Terry's header kept Villa in the match and they almost equalised when Ashley Young, from a free-kick Emile Heskey had dubiously earned, struck the crossbar. Terry was again dangerous in the air, Gareth Barry being obliged the head his effort off the goal-line, but Chelsea lost momentum. Hiddink ascribed it to a lack of movement rather than complacency, but it did invite Villa to try again and Petr Cech had to parry a full-blooded drive from Barry. There was, however, a shortage of subtlety in both their approach play and the movement of Heskey and Gabriel Agbonlahor.

The notion that the end of their Champions League dream is nigh was pooh-poohed by Martin O'Neill, who cited his players' heavy programme of late (they lost in the FA Cup at Everton last Sunday and drew at home to CSKA Moscow in the Uefa Cup on Wednesday) and said: ''On other days, other teams will have to cope with that. We'll bounce back.'' Unfavourable comparison of his team with Chelsea need not be conclusive. ''They have been playing for a number of years with a style in which three midfield players operate close together, and it works well. That's why we were outnumbered in there at times today. But we hope to make a difference in other areas of the field and to be explosive.''

Among those who have encountered their explosions are that fine footballing side Arsenal, but that was at the Emirates Stadium. Here Villa have fired too many blanks. It cannot, however, be stressed often enough that they have travelled far under O'Neill in a relatively short time. Less than a year after we were congratulating them on finishing sixth in the Premier League, it is a bit premature to be demanding they break up the cosy dominance of the top four. Yet it could still happen. There is plenty of life in Villa's season - as, with O'Neill around, you would expect.

Source: Telegraph