I believe I am beginning to fancy you, Gerard Houllier. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
This was a match defined by missed opportunities for both sides. Villa had a few early, with Ireland and then Carew doing well to create chances and missing by fractions in each case. Chelsea's were sprinkled throughout with the most dangerous coming right near the end with Nicholas Anelka making hash of a beautiful cross and hitting the woodwork with a header when a goal should have come. Ciaran Clark managed to hit woodwork midway through the second half with a flicked header from a corner. And then there was of course Nigel Reo-Coker's miss in the 92nd minute, coming after he brilliantly won possession from McEachran in the open field and flubbed the chip wide of the net. It was a heart-wrenching moment for Reo-Coker, who had yet another fine game today. After finding himself in Martin O'Neill's doghouse he was given another chance by Gerard Houllier and he's taken advantage of it, offering the only real defensive presence we've seen in the midfield all year. In this case Re-Coker did everything right up to the final (and most important) part, and the look on his face for the rest of the game was one of complete and utter disappointment. So close to being the hero, and instead he's ended up (in the eyes of many, though not necessarily my own) as the goat.
Villa were bossing things early on in the game, and though Chelsea had more of the possession much of it was in their own end and little of it was dangerous. Villa had some trouble creating chances which wasn't much of a surprise given the lineup, but the ones they had were good and if only for a bit of luck they could very well have found themselves ahead 2-0 going into the half. The lack of finishing ability this season has been frustrating, but I found it hard to be upset with either Ireland or Carew in this instance; both did well to find space for the shot and both were just inches wide. Perhaps Agbonlahor or Young do better in a similar situation, but it's difficult to ask for too much more. Chelsea were having a devil of a time dealing the attacking midfield trio of Young, Ireland and Downing, and with Ireland in an advanced position we finally got a glimpse of what it is he's capable of doing. His clumsy waste of a dangerous Villa counter attack late in the second half aside, this was by far Ireland's best showing in claret and blue. His defense was predictably poor, but that's far less of a problem with Reo-Coker and Petrov responsible for shielding the back four.
Things got significantly more nervy in the second half, with Chelsea making several adjustments to try and punish Villa's bunker and counter plan of attack. And early on, it worked quite well. The first fifteen minutes or so of the second half saw Chelsea finally looking like Chelsea, and it felt once again like Villa would play very well in the first half without taking full advantage of their chances and fade late. That's not what happened though, as Houllier made adjustments of his own, and the rest of the game was a furious back-and-forth with both sides coming close to putting a winner on the board. Though Villa got closer in the end, either club could conceivably make the case that victory should have belonged to them, and on the balance of play a draw seems a reasonable outcome.
The overwhelming feeling afterwards seemed to be one of frustration, and I'll admit that I felt it myself. Seeing Reo-Coker's shot go wide was a kick in the teeth for sure. Looking back at the whole of the game though, I think that's a shame. This is probably the best Villa have looked since the opening game against West Ham, and though Chelsea were without Drogba, Lampard and Alex the team Villa faced today is probably still the best in the Premier League and easily the best they've faced all season. And for the most part, Villa were right there with them the entire way, looking outclassed only for the shortest window of time. And it's not as though Villa were at full strength either; how much more likely would a goal have been should Heskey or Agbonlahor been fit to play? How close would Chelsea's attack been to scoring had Richard Dunne not come off due to injury and been replaced by Ciaran Clark? Clark played well for the most part, but he's not quite Richard Dunne's class just yet.
There was a great deal to like about this game, but the most encouraging signs in my estimation came from Gerard Houllier. Villa began the game in a 4-2-3-1, matching Chelsea's numbers in the center and putting Stephen Ireland in a position to be an asset rather than a liability. The plan was quite clearly to attack and attack hard early on and it very nearly paid off. When Chelsea switched to a more attacking style and finding holes in Villa's midfield, Houllier switched up the emphasis and played the defense and holding mids deeper. He did almost everything exactly as I'd hoped from a tactical standpoint, and I have to say that I like him more as Villa's gaffer with each passing game. Though I was initially puzzled by his decision to start Habib Beye over Eric Lichaj, when you consider the fact that Lichaj has been away from the squad for nearly two weeks, played a half on Tuesday in making his debut for the United States and is yet to play a game in the Premier League it seems a much more reasonable decision. Going to Ciaran Clark instead of Carlos Cuellar when Dunne came off was also a bit of a head-scratcher and less easily explained, Clark had a solid outing and made a few very nice passes to start some decent attacking passages from Villa so perhaps he knows something that I do not. Delfouneso on for Carew when Villa were forced to play a more defensive style was absolutely the right decision as well; Carew looked as good as he has all season and played quite well early on, but he was clearly not the right player to have on the field any longer.
All in all, both a performance and a result that I am more than happy with. An effort of that quality will result in three points more often than not and will rarely result in a loss. Villa played smart, entertaining and effective football against one of the best teams in the world, and though it resulted only in a point it's the team I've wanted to see all season. It's tempting to dwell on the missed chances, but there's far too much to be excited about to be disappointed with the outcome.