Saturday, March 31, 2012
Chelsea triumph on emotional day
This was an occasion when football seemed like an insignificant sideshow amid a real life horror story unfolding for Aston Villa skipper Stiliyan Petrov.
Just hours after the popular former Celtic midfielder announced that he had been diagnosed with acute leukaemia, Petrov put himself into the public spotlight to support the team he was leading just a week ago.
It was painfully ironic that Petrov's captain's programme notes for this game, penned before his illness was discovered, spoke of his admiration and support for Fabrice Muamba after the Bolton midfielder's collapse at White Hart Lane last month. Little did he know at the time that he would become the focus of a similar army of well wishers by the time this game kicked-off.
Both Villa and Chelsea players warmed up for this game wearing t-shirts in supporters of Petrov's plight, with the 'win it for Stan' message ringing around the stadium prior to kick off. A defiant and passionate pre-match statement from Petrov was read to the crowd by Villa press chief Brian Doogan, which concluded with a vow from the Bulgarian to win his greatest battle. It was greeted with rapturous applause by both the home supporters and their visitors in blue.
We can only imagine how Petrov felt as he watched Gabriel Agbonlahor, his replacement as Villa skipper, shake hands and toss the coin with Chelsea's John Terry, while the emotion that overflowed in the 19th minute brought a lump to all throats. As the stadium stood en-mass to show their respect and support for Villa's No. 19, even the most hardened of souls would have struggled to suppress the emotion. Petrov rose to his feet to thank those attempting to lift his spirits.
Amid all the emotion, a football match needed to be played and after 77 minutes of one-sided action pointed to an almost certain victory for Chelsea, Petrov was given a chance to believe his team-mates were about to stage a comeback.
Goals from James Collins 13 minutes from time and young Eric Lichaj moments later drew a youthful Villa level just as it seemed as if they were heading towards an inevitable defeat, only for their inability to defend set-plays to break their hearts once more as Branislav Ivanovic scored to seal the points for Chelsea.
A superb late strike from Fernando Torres capped off a win that moves Chelsea closer to their target of a top four finish on a day when rivals Arsenal lost at QPR, yet their manager Roberto Di Matteo admitted the emotion surrounding the fixture made this away day even more challenging that it might ordinarily have been.
"It's great to see how the football community comes together at times like this and we all wish Petrov well," stated Di Matteo. "This was an emotional day, but we had to do our job and get the result. Once the game is on, you try to get the result and focus on football and I felt we were strong and dominated the game apart from the five minutes when they scored their goals. We created many chances, hit the post and could have finished the game off a little earlier."
Di Matteo was right to suggest this game could have been over long before Villa's belated fightback, with Sturridge's tap in after nine minutes giving them a half-time lead that could have been so much more substantial had they been more clinical in front of goal.
As for Villa, they could have emerged from this game with a point or more had they defended well-worked Chelsea set-plays with a little more efficiency and yet manager Alex McLeish was naturally keen to keep the focus on Petrov as he faced the media.
"Stiliyan's presence at this game inspired the young boys we had representing Villa in this game and I felt the kids we had in the team did so well against an experienced Chelsea team," said the Villa chief. "Having Stan in the dressing room before the game lifted and inspired all of us and it was emotional. We didn't know whether to applaud or cry when we saw him. It was a difficult situation, but we have to carrying on fighting as our captain would want us to.
"It was a travesty that we didn't get anything out of the game because even though we had a lot of young kids playing today and up against a lot of world class players, they got into Chelsea's faces and did their best to try and get a result.
"To come back from 2-0 down was a brilliant effort, but we cannot continue to concede goals from set-pieces as we are doing. Still, we can take a lot of pride from this day and I'm sure Stiliyan will be lifted by the support everyone is giving him."
McLeish may have been caught up in the emotion of the day when he claimed his side deserved something from this match as it had been a mismatch for long periods, with Chelsea's dominance only undermined when they switched off and allowed Villa an improbable route back into the game.
Yet this was not an afternoon when banal sporting analysis seemed appropriate and with messages of support for Villa's skipper bursting out of the big screen as the fans left Villa Park, all of us were quickly reminded that there are more important things in life than a game of football. Everyone in football wishes Stiliyan Petrov all the best.
MAN OF THE MATCH: Fernando Torres - He may have missed a glut of chances, but at least he is getting himself back into scoring positions and his brilliant late goal was a flash of the Torres of old. Maybe, just maybe, he is starting to find his feet in a Chelsea shirt at last.
PETROV VOWS TO FIGHT: Villa's absent captain has vowed to win his fight against acute leukaemia and he is also keen to stress he has not given up on making a return to the football field. Reports in his native Bulgaria suggested he has decided to retire from the game, but Villa press chiefs insist they are not accurate.
VILLA VERDICT: "We have to stop conceding from set-pieces," was the obvious conclusion drawn by Villa boss McLeish on a day when his side made it too easy for Chelsea to triumph. The performance of some of their novice players against seasoned world class performers was commendable, but they didn't deserve anything from this game.
CHELSEA VERDICT: With an improving Torres leading the line and the powerful Chelsea of old starting to re-emerge under Di Matteo's thoughtful guidance, Chelsea are back in the mix for a top three finish in the Premier League. Their crowded fixture list must be a concern, but they are getting back into a winning habit.