Knight makes dream Villa debut
Aston Villa 2-0 ChelseaIf Roman Abramovich had succeeded in his attempts to lure the most extravagant talent in world football to Stamford Bridge, this could have been about a buck-toothed Brazilian rather than a big Brummie.
Without the improvised excellence and exaggerated showmanship that Ronaldinho could have offered, Zat Knight provided a more prosaic, but ultimately decisive, contribution, augmenting a series of defensive headers with the opening goal.
Gabriel Agbonlahor added a late second, prompting one wealthy Russian to decide to beat the Birmingham traffic or sample the hospitality inside, depending upon your interpretation.
'The owner leaves the stadium when he wants to leave,' said Jose Mourinho, but with Abramovich providing the impetus to bid for Ronaldinho, his manager's tactics can be interpreted as his declaration of independence.
With Chelsea's thoughts concentrated on both the unsigned - Ronaldinho - and the unfit, Frank Lampard, had last week transpired differently, theirs could have been an excessively attacking collective.
Instead, the focus was on the negative. Because this was a reversion to Mourinho's favoured formation of 4-3-3. His appeared an unusual way to compensate for the absence of a goalscoring midfielder, but it entailed the inclusion of three essentially defensive-minded players in the centre of the pitch. African athleticism, rather than Brazilian brilliance, was intended to be the defining theme. They were designed to stifle and smother and, in the case of John Obi Mikel and Michael Essien, out-run Villa.
They failed, partly because, in the weekend of the sprint relay finals in the World Athletics Championships, Villa assembled a speedy quartet of their own in their forward line. 'We've got a lot more pace in the team,' said Martin O'Neill. 'We can attack down the sides.'
They could and, through Agbonlahor and Ashley Young, they did. Chelsea, accustomed to exerting control, found it snatched from them, with swift passing to the flanks bypassing their midfield enforcers.
It was especially unfortunate for Claude Makelele, used to operating at his own tempo and finding his considered approach unsuited to a match played at an altogether greater pace. It passed him by, which may be a sign of a player in his footballing dotage. 'He played very well,' said the ever-loyal Mourinho, but it was notable that Makelele was hauled off.
His inclusion may have been the consequence of an unusual absence. Mourinho explained: 'Our team lost Lampard on Friday and after training, all the work we did in the week you have to forget and you have to try to build a team on Saturday to play such a difficult game.'
If a Lampard injury is that rarest of things, this provided a chance, in absentia, to assess what he offers Chelsea. The England international's no frills approach to the attacking midfield duties please those, Mourinho among them, who find efficiency exciting. He delights the statistician more than the aesthete. But without him, it was notable how few attempts on goal Chelsea had. That is rarely the case when their resident shotaholic is gorging himself in the midfield.
Nevertheless, Mourinho added: 'Chelsea played well in my opinion. Chelsea made a mistake we cannot make in something we are very well organised in, defensive set pieces, in a game where we are in control. Chelsea played with a complete domination of the game but not scoring a goal.' He was half-right: they may have dominated possession, but not the match.
O'Neill's assessment was more accurate. 'When they had the ball, Florent Malouda, who didn't play wide, he played in (field) caused us problems. But we had enough belief to go with two wide players. When we had the ball, we caused them problems.'
They did, and those problems resulted in goals. For the first, Young cut infield to unleash a shot that drew a fine save from Petr Cech. His excellence merely proved the prelude to Villa's opener, however, with Gareth Barry delivering the resulting corner and Knight heading it in.
Then the second came from a combination of Villa's two precocious talents. Young again made the initial incursion, his shot falling conveniently for Agbonlahor to sidefoot in to ensure Chelsea were beaten for the first time in the Premier League since they visited Anfield in January.
And although Joe Cole was a source of invention from the bench, he was a lone threat in the final half-hour. Whether Lampard's reliability or Ronaldinho's unpredictability, Chelsea found themselves lacking inspiration at Villa Park.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Ashley Young - While PA announcers are professional irritants, some eyebrows were raised when he described the latest call-up to Steve McClaren's squad as 'England's finest'. This was a performance to justify the hype. O'Neill's typically wry assessment was: 'Young had his bad day. He was the worst player in the five-a-side yesterday, so it went to his head, the England call.'
VILLA VERDICT: Their side is unrecognisable from the Leicester team that made O'Neill's reputation. Instead of slow stalwarts, they are bursting with pace and perhaps the Premier League's quickest side. The positions of Young and Agbonlahor were so advanced that O'Neill's formation was almost 4-2-4 at times. But well as Knight and Martin Laursen defended against Didier Drogba, that does threaten to leave Nigel Reo-Coker and Gareth Barry, energetic as they are, outnumbered in the midfield.
CHELSEA VERDICT: There were some causes for concern for Mourinho, besides the sense that Makelele may be fading. His latest right-back, Juliano Belletti, endured a torrid afternoon against Young while Alex, brought in to combat Villa's height, could do nothing about Knight's goal.