Villa denied the perfect finale on an emotional afternoon

Posted by Kevin Hughes

So close. So close to being the perfect finale to a season of trials and tribulations, with Villa on the brink of victory against Chelsea Saturday until Frank Lampard stole the show with two second-half goals, sealing a 2-1 win for the visitors.

Lampard, of course, has made a career out of bagging important goals, and plenty of them; his two at Villa Park made him Chelsea's all-time leading scorer. But Villa, if not in control, certainly had the upper hand in this game until, in a tempestuous second half, Christian Benteke was sent off for his second yellow card of the day. That balanced the numbers up, at ten-a-side each, and gave Chelsea a chance to get back into the match.

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For those who view the traditions of English football as sacred, staging this, a Premier League match, on the same day of the FA Cup final, was disrespectful to the famous old cup competition. It's an opinion I can sympathise with, but, dare I suggest it, this match proved worthy of sharing a little bit of the stage usually exclusively reserved for events at Wembley.

It was an emotional afternoon at Villa Park. The team's last home match of the season -- it could still, given the result, be Villa's last home league game in the Premier League for at least a year -- and, fittingly, Stiliyan Petrov's last home game as club captain.

The Bulgarian announced his retirement from professional football in midweek, and poignantly, the 33-year-old led his teammates out onto the field. The reception he received from the sellout crowd of 42,000-plus surely humbled and awed him. It was possible to taste the collective desire, from Villa fans and players, to win purely and simply to honour Petrov, who continues to fight leukemia with dignity and strength.

Villa fans have been singing Petrov's name in the 19th minute of every game the team have played since his diagnosis over a year ago (19 being his squad number). By the time the stadium was rising again to the familiar refrain, the claret and blue were a goal to the good.

Again, it was from a display of strength and composure from Christian Benteke. Storming through from halfway, the striker isolated former Villa centre-back Gary Cahill by driving at him as Andreas Weimann's run kept John Terry occupied. Left one-on-one, Cahill couldn't cope and Benteke surged past him before sidefooting the ball beyond Petr Cech at the near post. The finish was remarkably similar to his hat-trick goal against Sunderland.

Brad Guzan made a couple of smart saves before the first of what proved to be a series of contentious decisions. Yacouba Sylla, enjoying possibly his best game for Villa since arriving in January, was fouled by Terry as he ran in on goal.

Referee Lee Mason, perhaps taking the view that Ashley Cole may have got across to cover, booked Terry instead of sending him off. Cole had at least 10 yards to make up, however, and Sylla can shift.

By half-time, Chelsea were down to 10 men, with Ramires dismissed just before the break. Villa definitely had the advantage going into the second half, but their numerical superiority didn't last long -- before the hour mark, Benteke was given his second yellow of the encounter for catching Terry with studs raised.

Something to dispute here too, for Benteke was watching the ball and stretching for it, rather than producing anything violent. Then again, he had been slightly fortunate, some could say, with his first-half booking for a loose elbow.

Benteke's absence hurt Villa more than Ramires' damaged Chelsea, and the momentum was lost. Lampard, who has always been a thorn in Villa's side, took both his goals well. but the feeling remained, long after the final whistle and the lap of honour from the home side, that this was a game the Villans should have won, having got in front.

Paul Lambert was scathing in his criticism of the officials afterwards, but the decisions probably evened themselves out. As much as Chelsea got away with it when Terry fouled Sylla, Villa enjoyed the benefit of the viewpoint when Ashley Westwood was deemed to have scraped Demba Ba's effort off the goal-line just before the ball crossed it. It was very close.

This could have been the perfect conclusion for Villa. But instead, the spectre of relegation still haunts from the shadows. All Villa hearts and minds will be at the Emirates next Tuesday, for FA Cup champions Wigan need to beat Arsenal to prolong the tension -- a reminder, Wigan must win, a draw saves Villa.

But it is not a straight head-to-head between Lambert's team and the Latics. There are four other teams below Villa still, who all face difficult remaining fixtures and need positive results.

The odds are still in Villa's favour, but this memorable afternoon in May would have the ideal occasion to put Premier League survival beyond doubt.







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