BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - MARCH 31: John Terry of Chelsea and team mates wear Stiliyan Petrov t-shirts after the Aston Villa player was diagnosed with acute leukaemia prior to the Barclays Premier League match between Aston Villa and Chelsea at Villa Park on March 31, 2012 in Birmingham, England. (Photo by Mike Hewitt/Getty Images)
It was difficult to know what to expect from the lineup that Aston Villa put on the pitch today, but "points" likely weren't at the top of anyone's list. Ultimately that ended up being the case, but there were a lot of very encouraging things that took place on the road to that final result. There are competing narrative among Villa fans following this game and that's not exactly surprising but the reality as of now is this; this was an inspired and encouraging performance by a Villa team whose average age of outfield players was just 23 years old. No one ever should have expected to take any points from this game, and to go down in defeat in that manner is infinitely preferable to Chelsea coasting to a 2-0 win. The rest of the season probably won't be comfortable, but we knew that coming in to the game. And how anyone could find themselves more pessimistic about the state of the team after watching this game is baffling to me.
Clearly, this is a Chelsea side that's worlds ahead of Villa in terms of talent. But today, they weren't especially good. Not in a "making mistakes all over the pitch" kind of way, but that cutting edge and ability to completely lock down every element of the game were missing. Even before Villa's late onslaught they were managing to create pressure and if Peter Cech doesn't make an other-worldly save right before the half the complexion of this game may well have looked drastically different. The second half started very well and Villa looked the more likely of the two to score, but Chelsea grabbed what looked to be the goal that had put things to bed. Villa continued to battle, but it was clear they were missing a spark in the attack.
They got it in the 70th minute, when Marc Albrighton was brought on for Chris Herd. That lifted the entire side, and in the 77th minute it was a game again after James Collins got on the end of an Eric Lichaj long throw to make it 2-1. Just three minutes later, Marc Albrighton sent in a wicked low cross that Lichaj met at the far post to equalize. Villa Park was in rapture. Chelsea were reeling. There were still ten minutes left.
And then Gabriel Agbonlahor "fouled" John Terry.
I'm not blaming Lee Mason for the defeat. Clearly it's not that simple. But John Terry knew he was beaten and proceeded to fall over. In no universe is that a foul Agbonlahor was clean in on goal, and though it's impossible to know for sure whether he'd score it was going to be a one-on-one with Petr Cech (unless you think Gary Cahill is going to close down Gabby from behind. It's the kind of thing that takes the wind out of a team's sails for 15 seconds, and in this case that's all Chelsea needed. Villa were looking for a winner before Ivanovic's second, but after the Blues regained the lead it was pour-everyone-forward time. That's what led to Chelsea's fourth (though a tremendous amount of credit should go to Daniel Sturridge for a tremendous pass and Fernando Torres for an equally classy finish) and it's the risk in going all-out attack. 4-2 Is probably fair in terms of the balance of the game, but Chelsea weren't two goals better than Villa (or anything close to it) over the course of the last ten minutes.
It was, to be sure, a kick in the gut. But that it even got to that point with such a young and inexperienced lineup is a testament to the spirit, passion and yes, even a little bit of quality that was shown by the team. There were mistakes and there were rough edges, but that's going to improve over time. The youngsters were given the chance to prove themselves, and in a lot of ways they did just that. Eric Lichaj put in the best shift of any Villa fullback all season. Andi Weimann continues to impress. Barry Bannan's creativity and passing ability have never been in question, but the other aspects of his game continue to improve. Gary Gardner looks like he belongs more every time he suits up. Of the youngsters that got the call, only Nathan Baker did poorly and one game against a team with Chelsea's firepower doesn't exactly prove that he's not cut out for the big time.
Losing sucks, and though Villa aren't yet right in the fight for survival they can't afford to drop points every time out. But there was a lot to like about this game. Everyone wanted to win this game for Stiliyan Petrov, and it's a shame that it couldn't happen. But I can't imagine the captain was anything other than proud of the effort his club put in for him today.