Lampard cements legend and sends Chelsea into Champions League

Posted by Phil Lythell

A recently retired and highly decorated manager once said, "Football, bloody hell!"

If you had to pick one phrase to describe Chelsea's turbulent 2-1 win over Aston Villa on Saturday, Sir Alex Ferguson's memorable statement would be the perfect fit. A match that was topsy-turvy in the extreme and sent emotions cartwheeling from the depths of despair to unmitigated joy -- at least for the visitor's supporters -- resulted in every objective eventually being accomplished.

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The roller coaster plummeted as Chelsea fell behind to an effervescent Villa team and went a man down following Ramires' sending off before soaring skyward through Christian Benteke's dismissal to the crescendo of Frank Lampard's brace.

The veteran's double took him to the pinnacle amid Chelsea's pantheon of greats as he broke the club's all-time scoring record while all but ensuring that the European champions will compete in next season's Champions League.

But in the immediate aftermath of such a crazy 90 minutes, it is easy to forget that the unconfined celebrations that greeted both the winner and the final whistle looked nearly impossible as halftime approached. The Blues' sluggish start almost undermined what has been a gargantuan effort in recent weeks.

It appeared as if the exertions over the past seven days -- the dramatic late win against Manchester United and the high-tempo draw with Tottenham in midweek -- had taken their toll with some players looking physically and emotionally drained.

Villa started with greater energy knowing that a win would guarantee their Premier League survival, though they were ably abetted by some lethargic defending for the opening goal. Cesar Azpilicueta, who has had a tremendous debut campaign, committed a rare error by being caught upfield, failing to effectively track the run of Andreas Weimann.

Even then the danger could have been averted had Juan Mata helped out his right back by filling in the space behind him. Instead, Benteke found himself one-on-one with Gary Cahill and sauntered past the England international with worrying ease before firing inside the near post inexplicably left unguarded by Petr Cech. It was a litany of elementary errors from Chelsea, ruthlessly exploited by a striker enjoying the form of his life.

When Chelsea did have the ball, they failed to treat it with the requisite amount of care. Passes went astray, and players attempted the ambitious rather than the simple, sensible option. Mata had a rare off day with little coming off for him and his left foot unable to find the laser-sharp accuracy to which English football has become accustomed.

Ramires had a rotten afternoon culminating in a slightly harsh second yellow card that saw him forced to depart while farther forward Demba Ba offered little in the way of a goal threat or holdup play.

The limp performance together with referee Lee Mason's erratic officiating made it feel as if it was going to be one of those days when absolutely nothing goes right. Fifty-fifty calls continually went the way of the home side, with Benteke somehow receiving just a solitary yellow card for two coldly calculated elbows to Azpilicueta's jaw.

The sense of injustice burned bright as it has done several times this season and almost every week the past couple of months. Thankfully the talented but cumbersome Benteke finally got his marching orders for a high challenge on John Terry. It might have been accidental, but given his previous indiscretions, there was no question of him avoiding a second, decisive booking.

That ultimately proved to be the turning point with Lampard rattling in the equaliser almost immediately, though Villa regrouped impressively and it was worrying just how meekly Chelsea appeared to cede the initiative having drawn level. With 10 men each, it was assumed the Blues, featuring the more skillful individuals, would be far better at exploiting the extra space.

Yet the hosts' energy and desire managed to fill the gaping holes and forced Chelsea into making poor, hurried decisions on the ball. Fortunately, as the match entered its final throes, Eden Hazard, David Luiz, Lampard and Mata began to find that extra yard and provide the smarter movement that would ultimately settle the game.

They often talk about football players having scripts written for them, and that was certainly the case for "Super Frank." Having equaled Bobby Tambling's record and the clock running down, Lampard made the kind of run he has made his own over the past decade or so. Once Hazard slid the ball into the six-yard box, everyone in the stadium and watching on television knew what the outcome would be.

The ball burst the back of the net, and legendary status was assured along with Champions League qualification, bar some ludicrous scorelines in Tottenham's favour in their final two games.

The elation and relief were held by all those in blue, whether on the pitch or in the stands, and no doubt by Rafael Benitez in the visitor's dugout.

The season is not yet over, though. Third place and the avoidance of a dangerous Champions League playoff is still up for grabs, not to mention the chance to make history by winning the Europa League in Amsterdam on Wednesday.

Thanks to Lampard's script writer, this season of turmoil and recrimination could still yet have a happy ending.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell.

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