Liverpool supporters will remember fondly the lethal partnership between Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres which blossomed over a three-and-a-half year period. Chelsea have failed to adapt to the Spanish striker’s movement – except for his compatriot Juan Mata. The former Valencia midfielder has struck up an understanding with Torres which provides plenty of promise moving forward to next season. The pair played a central role in Chelsea’s first-half opener, with Torres directing Salomon Kalou’s cross into the path of Mata. The attacking midfielder then instinctively switched play back to the Chelsea’s striker – Torres’ effort was blocked but Daniel Sturridge was on hand to tuck the rebound past Villa goalkeeper Shay Given. Mata and Torres combined again mid-way through the first half, with striker’s neat flick releasing his international team-mate who was cruelly denied his sixth league goal of the season by the upright. Chelsea’s £50m signing was eventually rewarded for another industrious display when he netted the Blues’ fourth in 88th minute to wrap up a vital three points in their pursuit of a fourth-place finish.
Stiliyan Petrov’s absence will leave a gaping hole in Alex McLeish’s midfield which will need to be filled by Barry Bannan and Stephen Ireland. Villa are already devoid of quality and creativity in their side, employing a direct and very one-dimensional style of play. Captain Gabriel Agbonlahor started as a lone striker and was lacking service in a frustrating first half for the home side. But Bannan and Ireland showed glimpses of promise despite being completely out-muscled by Chelsea’s midfield duo Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel. Ireland has the raw materials to shine in the Villa midfield and dictate their tempo. And although McLeish has earned plenty of detractors for his conservative tactics, the former Birmingham City boss has been unfortunate with injuries, most noticeably losing the club’s record signing and top scorer Darren Bent. Without the England striker Villa only threaten from set-pieces with the aerial presence of James Collins causing Chelsea problems on Saturday afternoon, and the centre-half levelled for the home side before Branislav Ivanovic’s put the visitors ahead again.
Roberto Di Matteo rewarded his starting XI from Chelsea’s 1-0 victory over Benfica in Portugal last Tuesday by sticking with largely the same line-up. Kalou and Torres remained in the first-team and they were two of Chelsea’s liveliest performers on Saturday – Mata aside. Even Mikel was impressive at Villa Park and once again looks like he can be a long-term replacement for the ailing Michael Essien. The one change which the Blues caretaker boss did make was to drop Ramires and play Daniel Sturridge on the right to support Torres. The England forward justified his inclusion with an instinctive finish at the far post in the seventh minute. Di Matteo will be disheartened by David Luiz’s latest setback with the Portuguese defender withdrawn just after half-time with an ankle injury. It was a disappointing blow and disrupted Chelsea’s momentum as the visitors shipped two goals in the final quarter of the game with Collins and Eric Lichaj capitalising on disarray in the Blues’ defence.
The news that Stiliyan Petrov had been diagnosed with acute leukaemia broke on Friday, and it prompted emotional scenes at Villa Park both before and during McLeish’s side’s 4-2 defeat by Chelsea. Prior to kick-off, the Villa fans saluted the Bulgarian midfielder when he took his seat in the stands after both sets of players had donned t-shirts supporting the former Celtic star. Then, mid-way through the first half, when “Support Stan” appeared on the advertising hoardings, it prompted the stadium to rise to its feet and applaud the 32-year-old for over three minutes. Petrov joined Villa from the SPL in a £6.5m deal in 2006 and he has made 219 appearances for the Birmingham outfit. His illness marks another low point for the football community following the collapse of Bolton Wanderers’ Fabrice Muamba a fortnight ago and the liver transplant of Barcelona left-back Eric Abidal.
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