Chelsea struggle to find top gear
Alex Ferguson can let out a sigh of relief.
Chelsea, who could have gone seven points clear at the top of the table and taken the Premier League by the scruff of the neck, were held to a meagre point by Aston Villa last night, which would have been considered a decent return by their travelling fans, bearing in mind their injuries, had Branislav Ivanovic not hit the post and Nicolas Anelka the bar with just minutes to go.
Nevertheless, despite the missed chances, Carlo Ancelotti can take comfort in his side maintaining a five-point advantage over Manchester United. It could have been just four points had Ciaran Clark converted his late header -- but that, too, found the woodwork.
Ancelotti will be grateful to Stephen Ireland and John Carew who had both missed absolute gimmes in the first six minutes and to Nigel Reo-Coker, who missed with a minute to go. Where is Emile Heskey when you need him?
In truth, this constitutes a reasonable result for both sides mainly because of their respective injury problems. Chelsea, without Didier Drogba, struck down with a fever, and also Frank Lampard, Alex, Salomon Kalou, Daniel Sturridge and Yossi Benayoun were forced to ask John Terry, who suffered bruising to his lower back after landing heavily in training with England, manfully to play through the pain.
Villa have their own injury problems though, the butcher's bill including Gabby Agbonlahor, recovering from groin surgery, Luke Young, out with a hamstring problem, and Marc Albrighton, who is laid low with a virus. The most significant absentee however was Heskey, who strained his back in training on Friday -- a let-off for Terry, who has confessed in the past that he does not like playing against the striker.
Villa have not been known to have the strongest squad, but they had more than enough left to worry Chelsea, and Ancelotti was reduced to nervously chewing his gum as Paulo Ferreira was treated like a jobbing part-timer by Ashley Young, back out on the left wing because of Villa's injury problems.
He and his team-mates whipped Villa Park into a tumult, the clamour pouring down around the Chelsea manager like molten tar.
Stiliyan Petrov would benefit from synchromesh -- crashing through the gears as he does -- but his pass which sent Stewart Downing loose down the right was weighted perfectly. Downing saw Ireland escaping from John Obi Mikel and slipped him in with Petr Cech to beat, but glory flashed up in front of Ireland's eyes -- a goal against Chelsea after just three minutes! It obscured his vision, and the midfielder curled his shot the wrong side of the post.
Villa were given a second chance when, just minutes later, Stephen Warnock launched himself at Kakuta, the ball ricocheting through for Carew, who had kept himself onside. The Norwegian is not one to rush things, though, and he allowed himself time to attempt a nonchalant curl around Cech, which would have been hailed as uber-cool had it worked but looked lazy when Cech tipped the ball around his left post.
Ancelotti's jaws were now going like pistons, but he was able to relax when Richard Dunne injured his right foot and disappeared down the tunnel after 10 minutes. Reo-Coker was moved to right-back allowing Chelsea to batten down the hatches while Houllier waited to hear if the Irishman could carry on. He could not, so Clark was summoned and Villa's normal formation restored. But by then the storm had passed.
The first half disappeared amid a haze of mediocrity -- a clumsy back heel from Anelka here, a charged-down shot by Ireland there -- and both managers gratefully disappeared down the tunnel at the break to have a rethink. With little to choose from on the bench, Ancelotti resorted to removing Gael Kakuta, too lightweight to cause problems against this defence, for Yuri Zhirkov. Zhirkov could have proved decisive, skipping over Habib Beye on the right channel and delivering a low cross which Clark allowed to skid under his studs.
Anelka, taken by surprise at such woeful defending, was unable to profit and the ball was hastily cleared.
Houllier made his own change, deploying Nathan Delfouneso for Carew, but soon Ivanovic was rising to head Florent Malouda's corner against the post. Seconds later it was Clark, his sly header also finding the upright. Finally, Anelka was free with a header, a bare minute to go. It hit the post. It just wasn't to be.