Chelsea's season is unravelling around them. Andr� Villas-Boas's side go into the new year cast adrift from the Champions League qualification places, their form drained and momentum utterly checked. Aston Villa had not prevailed here in nine years, but they dazzled where the hosts merely drifted.
The home side departed to a chorus of boos.
Even at the campaign's midway point, doubts persist over Chelsea's current project with signs of real progress elusive. Back in January, these sides had shared six goals to leave the London club similarly in fifth place. Yet, back then, the summit was only six points away in a congested bottleneck. Manchester City could extend the current gap to the top of 13 points tomorrow and, while hopes of the title have faded, there is real and understandable concern over securing a return to Europe's elite competition.
Chelsea laboured, not for the first time, through much of this occasion with too much of their play ponderous and pedestrian. They had plucked the lead amid plenty of huff and puff if little quality, and courtesy of Villa's generosity. Richard Dunne's lunge on Didier Drogba was unnecessary, with the Ivorian squeezing the resultant penalty under the diving Bradley Guzan to register his 150th goal for the club. Drogba bowed to those in the Shed End in celebration most likely with that landmark in mind � he drew level with Peter Osgood in the process � though every theatrical gesture of thanks can appear like a farewell while his contract talks remain at impasse.
The visitors might have been expected to wilt, yet they maintained an upbeat rhythm, fizzing passes effectively, and were quickly rewarded. Stephen Ireland had been the contest's most eye-catching performer, his desire to make a positive contribution perhaps heightened by words of warning delivered by Alex McLeish after he was pictured on his girlfriend's Twitter account smoking a Shisha pipe and drinking. The midfielder duly linked up with Charles N'Zogbia, another underachiever at Villa, with the Frenchman darting to the byline and cutting back. Ireland's first attempt was blocked by John Terry on the goalline, but he kept his composure to slide the rebound through the defender's legs.
That was the midfielder's first Premier League goal for over two years, opening his account for Villa in the process, and was well merited. They might have pilfered a lead thereafter, one lightening break involving N'Zogbia, Marc Albrighton and Gabriel Agbonlahor ending with Petr Cech denying the striker as he tore into the penalty area.
That rather shrugged the hosts from their slumbers, with Fernando Torres springing from the bench to burst a dipping shot from 20 yards on to the crossbar.
His fellow substitute, Jos� Bosingwa, forced Guzan to tip over a similar effort though, if the hosts sensed a winner, the disintegration of their defence gifted Villa their points.
The gap between John Terry and David Luiz through which Ciaran Clark slid Stilian Petrov to convert the visitors' second was gaping. Frank Lampard's sloppy crossfield pass, intercepted by Ireland for Darren Bent eventually to convert a third, was just as culpable.
Villa had been magnificent, potent on the break, slick in the pass and completely worthy of a memorable win.
Chelsea could only pine for such qualities.
Source: Dominic Fifield/Guardian.co.uk
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