Chelsea Crumble As Villa Star (Sky Sports)
Aston Villa 3 Chelsea 2
Richard Jolly reports
It is as well that Claudio Ranieri has already admitted that the title race is over. Mario Melchiot gave the trophy another shove towards Arsenal with a needless push to precipitate a Chelsea collapse and an Aston Villa win.
Chelsea were comfortable in the lead Hernan Crespo's first goal for two months gave them when Melchiot's foul on Gareth Barry gifted Villa a penalty. Darius Vassell scored and goals within seven minutes at the start of the second half from Thomas Hitzlsperger and Lee Hendrie completed a deserved win for Villa despite Crespo's sumptuous second.
With Ranieri's representatives planning talks to capitalise on Champions League success and the popular uprising in favour of the Italian, it was not the most opportune moment for a much-changed Chelsea side to capitulate.
And the euphoria of the victory over Arsenal has proved the prelude to an anti-climactic Easter for Chelsea, held at home by Middlesbrough and now victims of David O'Leary's impressive Villa side.
Villa, O'Leary has admitted, lack strength in depth. Chelsea's squad has a surfeit of players in almost every position. Yet, confronted with a second game in three days, the Midlanders had the spirit, resolve and stamina to out-run a Blues side showing eight changes. Too much tinkering to too little effect, Ranieri's critics would have concluded a week ago.
Not that the changes were a complete failure. In the 11th minute, the recalled Wayne Bridge curled in a cross for the restored Adrian Mutu to head against the post and the reinstated Crespo to accept an easy opportunity.
Villa had been warned. In the fourth minute, the offside Argentinian evaded their attentions to finish from Scott Parker's lofted pass. Parker was providing the bite in the Chelsea midfield, the elusive Crespo the cutting edge in attack. He almost had a second within two minutes but headed Geremi's cross wide.
Villa's initial policy of aiming at a rather less celebrated striker brought little. But Peter Crouch's marker, Robert Huth, came closer to a Villa leveller. Olof Mellberg inadvertantly prevented an own goal after a Barry corner caused confusion in the Chelsea box.
Villa profited from a change of approach and an aberration from Chelsea's right back. The neat interplay of Barry and Jlloyd Samuel on the left flank troubled Melchiot and the former, despite his comparative lack of inches, proved a greater aerial threat than Villa's lanky target man.
Melchiot shoved Barry as they competed for Darius Vassell's cross and the striker himself rifled home the penalty. Then Barry twice met Hitzlsperger's right-wing corners, only to shoot and head wide.
Chelsea were hanging on and Villa's energetic midfield quartet made their superiority tell after the interval. Barry's perceptive pass sprung the Chelsea offside trap, the purposeful Vassell was denied by Marco Ambrosio in the Chelsea goal and the rebound fell perfectly for Peter Crouch. His finish was high, wide and wasteful.
Chelsea could not capitalise on the let-off. Hitzlsperger, never loath to shoot, advanced unchecked and let fly from 25 yards to put Villa ahead.
Within minutes it was three. Crouch may be an inadequate deputy for the injured Juan Pablo Angel but provided the flick-on for Hendrie to hook in the third. It proved his final contribution as the revitalised midfielder limped off soon after.
Chelsea's changes were enforced, too, but for different reasons. Melchiot's mauling at the hands of Barry ended and his replacement, William Gallas, showed more adventure than many of his colleagues.
Frank Lampard, perhaps suffering from the weight of games he has played this year, almost supplied the France international with a goal. Jesper Gronkjaer, another substitute, was denied by his compatriot Thomas Sorensen and the Dane had no answer to Crespo's curled consolation goal.
After one point from two games over Easter, Chelsea can forget the title concentrate on the Champions League. But, one point off a top four place, so can Villa.
Sorensen, Barry, De la Cruz,
Johnsen, Mellberg, Samuel, Hendrie (Whittingham 55), Hitzlsperger, McCann,
Crouch (Moore 82), Vassell (Dublin 88)
Subs Not Used: Postma, Ridgewell
Goals: Vassell (pen) 39, Hitzlsperger 49, Hendrie 52
Ambrosio, Bridge, Huth,
Melchiot (Gallas 61), Terry, Duff (Gronkjaer 71), Geremi, Lampard, Parker,
Crespo, Mutu (Cole 71)
Subs Not Used: Sullivan, Gudjohnsen
Goals: Crespo 11, 90
Referee: J. Winter