Tempers flare as Ivanovic wins the points for Chelsea
Serbian defender scores winner after escaping red card at Stamford Bridge
Branislav Ivanovic (centre) of Chelsea is congratulated by teammates after scoring his team’s winner against Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: Scott Heavey/Getty Images
Chelsea 2 Aston Villa 1: There could have been red cards, instead there were scarlet faces. Jose Mourinho and Paul Lambert threatened to overheat as tempers flared and controversy swirled around Chelsea’s match-winner, Branislav Ivanovic.
The Serbian defender tilted an intriguing contest towards the blue corner with a solid header in the 73rd minute. The fact that he courted dismissal on either side of the goal as he challenged Christian Benteke – first with an arm in the face and then with a high kick – left Villa cursing.
The expectancy of home dominance is part of life under Mourinho at Stamford Bridge, and all went according to plan early on. Chelsea eased into the lead in the sixth minute. Oscar’s vision spliced Villa open – his superb pass took three opposition players out of the game – enabling Eden Hazard to pelt into the penalty area. The Belgian’s cross was tricky for Brad Guzan, who could only palm the ball straight into the chest of the onrushing Antonio Luna.
For Luna, it capped a weird welcome to the madcap, unpredictable world of the Premier League. Five days ago the Spaniard was elated to score a fine breakaway goal. He looked sober here as Chelsea’s players celebrated around him.
Once they were in front Chelsea looked in the mood to suffocate Villa with endless, mesmerising possession. With Ramires and Frank Lampard keeping a stranglehold on midfield, it was just a question of when – and with how much vigour – the attacking section of their team sparked to life. Inspiration proved hard to summon, however.
Chelsea mustered a few half chances but nothing else of note in the first half to seriously test Guzan. A couple of off-target efforts from Oscar, and a Demba Ba drive that lacked power, did not worry Villa unduly. For all Mourinho’s talk pre-match about his wish to see more “intensity” from his side, and a hunger to “destroy” teams, Chelsea played as if they were content to pootle along in first gear.
But Villa found Chelsea a tougher nut to crack than a shaky Arsenal, so eking a path back into the game felt a tougher challenge than they had last weekend, when they also needed to recover from an early setback. But recover they did. Undaunted by the task, they chipped away patiently, and slowly began to drag some of the initiative away from Chelsea. Villa first threatened in the 20th minute when a quickly taken free-kick suddenly gave them sight of goal. Andreas Weimann struggled to convince with a free header, though, and Ashley Cole improvised to flick the chance away.
The reward came in first-half stoppage-time, as their two most influential attacking figures combined again. Gabriel Agbonlahor was able to dart away down the left flank, and his pass fell to Villa’s master marksman. Christian Benteke cushioned the ball with his right foot and placed it with his left. Petr Cech, seeking his 200th clean sheet for Chelsea, would have to wait.
Villa needed some defensive reorganisation when Ciaran Clark took a bloody blow to the head from Ba’s studs, and Jores Okore slotted in alongside Ron Vlaar to make his debut.
The senior partner had to be alert as Vlaar denied Ba in the penalty area with a typically forceful challenge. Okore did well to read Juan Mata’s run shortly after, as Chelsea’s number 10 loitered dangerously. When Hazard dragged a shot wide, a hint of frustration began to show.
Villa surged forward again, Weimann connected fiercely to Benteke’s cross. Cech pulled off a vital save. Mourinho acted, withdrawing Ba and Mata – neither of whom you sensed did an enormous amount to endear themselves to their new coach – and passed the baton to the trickery of Andre Schurrle and the hulking brawn of Romelu Lukaku.
With 20 minutes to go, fortune turned Chelsea’s way. Branislav Ivanovic took a huge risk as he caught Benteke in the face with a raised arm. Lambert fumed on the touchline, but the referee Kevin Friend chose yellow instead of red. A couple of minutes later, Lampard swung in a free kick and – inevitably – the name on the shirt of the man who thundered in to plant a bullet header past Guzan was none other than . . . Ivanovic.
Chelsea still needed Cech to protect the win with a fine save from Weimann with his legs.