Chelsea bulldozed their way to the top of the Premier League table with a controversial 2-1 victory over a lively Aston Villa side, who will consider themselves to have been seriously short-changed by referee Kevin Friend. Friend certainly lived up to his name for those of the Blue and White persuasion, with the final outcome of a tempestuous and often feisty game hinging on two key decisions that he found in favour of the home side.
The first came in the 71st minute. With the game balanced at 1-1, Blues defender Branislav Ivanovic, who'd been engaged in a rumbustious tussle with livewire Villa striker Christian Benteke all evening, was booked for an unfair challenge on the Belgium international. The degree of unfairness in Friend's eyes merited a yellow card; the offence, a brutish-looking Ivanovic elbow that connected with Benteke's neck, potentially deserved red. Football being football, within a couple of minutes, the pugnacious Serb scored what proved to be the winner, meeting a sweetly delivered ball from a Frank Lampard free kick with a powerful header that gave Villa keeper Brad Guzan no chance as it found the bottom corner of the net.
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Friend was already a foe in the eyes of Villa manager Paul Lambert when, in the dying minutes of the match, he myopically failed to see Chelsea captain John Terry block a Gabby Agbonlahor header with his arm in the midst of a tangled penalty area. While Lambert was duly apoplectic with rage, Blues supporters laughed at their good fortune. Kevin was certainly a friend indeed.
At the outset of the game, Jose Mourinho sent out a Blues side featuring just two changes to the lineup that had started against Hull City on Sunday. In midfield, a fit-again Juan Mata was preferred to Kevin De Bruyne, and up front, Demba Ba took the place of Fernando Torres. It was the Blues, fizzling and crackling again in the centre of the park, who took the game to Aston Villa. An expectant home crowd hoping for an early goal to settle the nerves was soon rewarded when a precise pass from Oscar picked out Eden Hazard, who had made an athletic run into the Villa box. The resultant strike from Hazard was parried by Guzan, but unfortunately for the visitors, the ball struck Villa defender Antonio Luna and bounced into the net: 1-0, Chelsea.
The Blues' defence looked resolute enough with Ivanovic and Terry having Benteke and Agbonlahor in their respective pockets right up until the final minute of first-half injury time when the Villa duo finally unshackled their markers and combined to give the visitors an equalizer. It was Benteke who found the net with a perfectly placed shot that beat Petr Cech in what was the final act of a half Chelsea had dominated.
Benteke's goal galvanized Villa, and they were out early for the second half, Lambert having clearly instilled in them the belief that they could do unto Chelsea what they had done unto Arsenal at the weekend. For the first 20 minutes of the second period, Villa pressed forward -– and in increasing numbers, Blues supporters looked anxiously toward Mourinho in the Chelsea technical area to see whom the manager might be considering to address the problem.
Mourinho is not called the "Special One" for nothing. If Lambert and the travelling Villa fans could be entitled to feel hard done by on account of a couple of unfathomable refereeing decisions, Blues supporters would argue Mourinho's double substitution just after the hour mark that saw Juan Mata and Demba Ba replaced by Andre Schurrle and Romelu Lukaku changed the face of the game. Suddenly, Chelsea looked like a far more potent force.
Schurrle, already amusingly dubbed "Shirley" by the home support, added incision, and Lukaku did what everyone knew he would do, terrifying the opposition defence each time he had the ball at his feet. Both men had opportunities to bury the game when Chelsea were already ahead, with Lukaku the unluckier of the two substitutes when his powerful strike found the side netting.
With controversy never too far away, it was Chelsea who prevailed to take the three points and secure an early lead in the title race. The main postmatch talking points will revolve around the pivotal refereeing decisions made by Friend, but Blues supporters and Mourinho will ignore this and focus on the positives -- and the key learning of the game.
Thus far, with the three strikers currently at his disposal, Mourinho has gone with experience first. Against Hull, it was Torres. Against Villa, it was Ba. Both men failed to make the most of the opportunity afforded to them. In the final 25 minutes of Wednesday's pulsating encounter, Lukaku, with his physical presence and desire to be first to the ball, demonstrated he has the minerals to lead the Chelsea line.
In the Blues' next Premier League encounter, against Manchester United at Old Trafford on Monday -- the first major showdown of the new campaign -- many will hope the youngster is given his chance to start. On Wednesday night, though, Lukaku, his teammates and everyone associated with Chelsea Football Club will reflect on what was a hard-fought victory.
If the title does indeed return to Stamford Bridge in May, and maybe by the narrowest of margins, the significance of this evening's result will not be forgotten and Blues supporters will be the first to offer to buy Kevin Friend a drink should they ever come across him in a bar while on holiday next summer.