Saturday, February 21, 2009

Anelka puts Chelsea ahead of Villa

Chelsea launched the Guus Hiddink era in positive fashion as Nicolas Anelka's first-half strike earned them a 1-0 victory and kept alive their slim hopes of lifting the Premier League title as they leapfrogged Aston Villa into third spot.

Anelka struck his 21st goal of the campaign after 19 minutes to earn the Blues their first league win at Villa Park for 10 years.

It was his first goal in nine league games and brought an end to Villa's 13-game unbeaten sequence in the top flight stretching back to early November.

Hiddink restricted himself to a little jig of delight after seeing Anelka lift some of the gloom which has been surrounding Stamford Bridge.

But his influence is already evident in galvanising the players who had underperformed during the closing stages of the Luiz Felipe Scolari reign.

Hiddink opted to play Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka up front after their success when reunited against Watford in the FA Cup - and Chelsea responded to his appointment by producing a masterful display in the opening 45 minutes.

They knocked the ball around in confident style at leisure with Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack and Mikel taking command in midfield while Anelka and Drogba were a constant threat.

In contrast, Villa - playing their third game in six days - lacked their usual cutting edge with their front players unable to make much of an impression apart from the occasional dangerous cross from Ashley Young.

The home side came more into the game in the second half and enjoyed a greater share of possession as Chelsea sat back with Ashley Young finding more space on the left flank.

But Petr Cech, who has been under the spotlight after some uncertain displays in recent weeks, produced a couple of crucial saves to protect his side's lead.

Drogba had the first effort on target - a powerful low drive from a narrow angle which was dealt with by Brad Friedel - and Lampard's dipping long range effort was only just too high.

Cech gave the Blues a scare when he failed to cling onto a low cross from James Milner - and when the loose ball broke to Emile Heskey the striker was unable to keep down his left footed attempt.

It was a rare moment of danger from the home side and after 19 minutes Anelka put Chelsea ahead with his sixth goal in six meetings with Villa.

Lampard was the creator with a superb piece of skill which enabled him to race clear of Curtis Davies and Stiliyan Petrov before sliding a pass through to Anelka.

The former Arsenal striker showed great composure in dinking the ball over Friedel into the corner of the net for his 21st goal of the campaign.

Chelsea looked a class above their opponents as they moved the ball around in impressive style to leave Villa often chasing shadows.

Friedel needed to pull off a superb one-handed save to keep out John Terry's thumping header from a Lampard corner.

Villa struggled to get into the game as an attacking force but in the 33rd minute Ashley Young came close to equalising when his curling free-kick hit the crossbar. Heskey was the first to react to the rebound but he headed well wide.

O'Neill would have demanded a response for his side after the break but it was Terry who came close to doubling Chelsea's lead after 49 minutes.

The England captain met a Lampard corner with a firm header - but Petrov was able to clear off the line with Friedel beaten.

Carlos Cuellar became the first player to be yellow carded after 52 minutes for a foul on Anelka.

Cech was forced to make his first meaningful save after 54 minutes when he beat out a fierce drive by Gabriel Agbonlahor after a slip by Alex.

Villa started to build some momentum and Cech turned aside a powerful effort from Gareth Barry.

But Chelsea finished strongest and they had the best two chances of the closing stages.

Drogba could have wrapped up the points after a mistake by Cuellar - but he lofted his shot into the Holte End, before Friedel denied Jose Bosingwa at close range.

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