Aston Villa 2-4 Chelsea: Sunday Mirror match report
Published 21:35 31/03/12 By Ian Edwards
Stiliyan Petrov’s emotional appearance at Villa Park was an act of defiance and sheer bravery his team-mates were unable to reward.
The Bulgarian, who just 24 hours earlier had been diagnosed with acute leukaemia, has been an inspirational figure at Villa Park for six years.
His colleagues would have swapped any of the club’s former triumphs for success against Chelsea, but they were unable to deliver as a well-taken strike from Fernando Torres — his first league goal in more than six months — put the seal on the win for the Blues.
For Petrov, however, more important victories lie ahead. T-shirts were worn by both teams in a show of solidarity for the midfielder (right) and Chelsea supporters were equally respectful in their backing, but that was where the unity had to end.
Roberto Di Matteo’s galvanised Blues were as ruthless as could be for a team with designs on a top-four finish and a Champions League and FA Cup double.
Even if they squandered a two-goal lead generated by Daniel Sturridge and the first of Branislav Ivanovic’s two contributions, Villa’s response from Eric Lichaj and James Collins was ultimately futile. A second goal from Ivanovic followed by Torres’ strike swatted away renewed aspirations of the victory and maintained Chelsea’s rehabilitation under Di Matteo.
The Italian said: “It was an emotional day and we really feel for Stiliyan as a person and a player. But we had to do our job and try to win the game.
“You could see how the football community responded again after such terrible news and that is magnificent, but we showed great character and we were very professional in what we had to do.”
Aston Villa manager Alex McLeish said: “Stiliyan came in before the game and it was very emotional. We were not sure whether to applaud him or cry.
“He went around and shook everyone by the hand and all the players embraced him. It was great to see him.
“It was a travesty we did not get something out of the game for him, but the show of support was fantastic.
“When any player’s mortality is cast into sharp focus, real life and death circumstances, tribal combat for the bauble of victory and three points is meaningless.”
Chelsea, who displayed dignity by warming up with T-shirts bearing Petrov’s name, left with only their second victory at Villa Park in 13 years, which takes them to within two points of Tottenham.
Despite the absence of Didier Drogba because of a toe injury, the Di Matteo effect was evident again with another confidence-boosting success ahead of their bid to secure a Champions League semi-final place against Benfica on Wednesday night.
Di Matteo’s only blow yesterday was the loss of defender David Luiz at half-time to an ankle injury, meaning he may miss the game.
Emotions generated by Petrov’s illness will remain raw and his emotional address over the PA system was barely audible, drowned by a crescendo of spontaneous applause at the sight of the Villa captain waving from the directors’ box.
He was clearly moved by the outpouring of goodwill from the fans and appeared to wipe away a tear.
For him football has no importance now. The plight of the family man with two children renders Chelsea’s squabbles over TV schedules, senior players’ power struggles with former coach Andre-Villas Boas and Torres’ lack of goals irrelevant. Yet victory for them and the need to rescue a miserable season was crucial, and by the time Villa fans broke into more orchestrated applause in the 19th minute — the squad number of the Villa captain — Chelsea were already ahead through Sturridge’s tap-in, after Collins blocked Torres’ initial effort.
Ivanovic doubled the lead, again from inside the six-yard box when Villa failed to deal with Juan Mata’s corner.
At that point, avoiding embarrassment looked the only option for Villa. Yet from nowhere they found the stomach for a battle they could have been forgiven for not caring too much about.
Mata curled a long-range free-kick over the bar and Torres glanced a header wide. Collins gave Villa a lifeline with 14 minutes remaining when he headed a long throw from Lichaj past Petr Cech.
Then three minutes later Villa Park erupted when Lichaj equalised for McLeish’s side.
Marc Albrighton was the creator with a dangerous low ball across the Chelsea six-yard box and Lichaj made no mistake at the far post.
But Villa were again caught out at a corner in the 83rd minute when Ivanovic restored Chelsea’s lead.
Florent Malouda floated the ball into the danger area and no one picked up Ivanovic as he headed past Shay Given.
Then in time added on Torres scored when he beat Given with a low drive.