They thought it was all over. But Chelsea celebrated too soon. It's never over until the final peep from the man in black: not in the Premier League, not in this division of relentless commitment and certainly not with Aston Villa sensing the champions' enduring vulnerability.
When Carlo Ancelotti had finished revelling in John Terry's 89th-minute goal, cavorting on the pitch like a better dressed David Pleat, Villa simply stormed back. Chelsea's defence had dozed off, seemingly still basking in the glow of Terry's goal, allowing Republic of Ireland hopeful Ciaran Clark to steal in and prise a deserved point. Chelsea's stop-start season was held up again in stoppage-time.
Now it was Villa dancing a jig, leaping up and down in front of their jubilant support. This was a match of extraordinary scenes, of Villa racking up a £25,000 fine for six bookings before the break, of hapless performances by the likes of Paulo Ferreira, whose eventual replacement by Jose Bosingwa felt like a mercy subbing by Ancelotti. Such was Ferreira's relief that he planted a kiss on Bosingwa's face.
This was the sort of electric, mistake-riddled game that makes the Premier League drama so intoxicating for the global viewing audience, loving all the thrills, spills and hissy-fits. Even after the final whistle, the spectacle continued with Terry and Didier Drogba arguing and then making up. Again. Terry and Drogba are fast becoming the Taylor and Burton of west London.
Terry actually rallied Chelsea well in the second half but the best displays could be found cloaked in claret and blue. Brad Friedel was exceptional in goal, conceding three goals but saving as many with some remarkable stops.
Richard Dunne's return to Villa's back line brought organisation and defiance.
The versatile Clark excelled at left-back. Stewart Downing was tireless up and down the right, tracking Ashley Cole's runs and contributing to Villa's forward momentum. In attack, Emile Heskey was immense, scoring and providing.
Although the points were shared, this felt like a triumph for Villa and particular their under-fire manager, Gerard Houllier, who has been criticised for recent poor results and displays. Not here. Villa fans sang his praises.
Houllier successfully preyed on the weaknesses in Chelsea's defence, unleashing Heskey on Jeffrey Bruma, and targeting Ferreira with Gabriel Agbonlahor and Clark.
Houllier's approach worked, particularly the recall of Ireland defender Dunne. The Frenchman has had issues with certain players, including the Dubliner, but there was no sign of any lack of team unity here. Villa looked very much together as they responded to Houllier's game plan.
Villa have some terrific youngsters, and Marc Albrighton again confirmed his promise with a lively late cameo, but the older heads like Dunne were vital yesterday.
Being positive, Chelsea are now unbeaten in two games but a clearer picture is provided by a Premier League run that reads LLDDDLWD, seven points from 24 for a side hailed before the game by Terry as "the best team in the country".
Chelsea lie in fifth position, six points behind Manchester United, who boast a game in hand and have yet to find top gear. Unless Chelsea stir sharpish, that March 1 game at the Bridge will come too late, let alone May 7 at Old Trafford.
Myriad reasons have been ventured for Chelsea's travails, from Ray Wilkins' ludicrous sacking to the loss of Ricardo Carvalho to Real Madrid.
Carvalho wanted to rejoin Jose Mourinho but Chelsea have so missed the centre-half. Alex's long-term injury and Branislav Ivanovic's one-game ban left them vulnerable. To lose one goal to a header could be considered a misfortune, to lose two looks like carelessness.
Chelsea started brightly enough, taking the lead after 22 minutes. After Ramires and Frank Lampard had combined, Florent Malouda contested an aerial ball with James Collins. The Villa defender undoubtedly fouled Malouda, climbing on the Frenchman, who milked the contact. Friedel was furious at Malouda's response, his anger intensifying when Lampard drove the penalty past him: 1-0.
This was a "roller-coaster of emotions", according to Houllier, whose team responded well. Shortly before the break, Ferreira dithered in possession and Clark closed him down, deflecting the right-back's attempted clearance into the box. As Nigel Reo-Coker sought to address the ball, Michael Essien brought him down and Ashley Young calmly converted the penalty: 1-1.
Villa maintained their confident form after the break. When Young worked the ball to Downing out wide within two minutes of the restart, Chelsea failed to man the barricades. Downing eluded Cole and crossed right-footed for Heskey to leap above Bruma and score: 1-2.
Chelsea urgently needed galvanising. The fans responded, loudly reminding the players they were champions. Life was breathed into the team. Drogba's effort was blocked by Dunne. Ramires shot wide. Villa's resilience was superb. Dunne denied Malouda, whose ensuing corner was headed clear by Collins.
Friedel was magnificent, thwarting Lampard and Malouda. Clark denied the disappointing Nicolas Anelka, who has failed to score in his last 10 appearances.
But the pressure told six minutes from time. After Friedel had saved from Salomon Kalou, Drogba pounced on the loose ball, firing it in: 2-2. When Essien crossed in the 89th minute, Drogba's header caused chaos and there was Terry driving Chelsea ahead: 3-2.
Villa refused to yield. A minute into injury-time, Albrighton cleverly worked a yard of space and lifted the ball towards the far post. Cole was too busy appealing for offside rather than following Clark, who stole in to head Villa level: 3-3.
And soon it really was all over. (© Daily Telegraph, London)