Football Features

“We needed it” – The old Chelsea make an appearance as Fortress Villa Park crumbles again

By Harry Edwards

Published: 22:23, 7 February 2024

Chelsea secured their spot in the fifth round of the FA Cup thanks to a shock 3-1 win over Aston Villa in their replay.

Dark clouds were forming around Stamford Bridge and if some Chelsea fans had their way, Mauricio Pochettino wouldn’t have started the week as Blues manager let alone led them to Villa Park.

Following a run of five wins from six after Christmas, it looked as though Chelsea were finally turning things around. But that run came crashing to a halt, and in some fashion. After drawing the initial FA Cup fourth round tie against Aston Villa, Chelsea were then beaten 4-1 by Liverpool and 4-2 by Wolves, the latter at Stamford Bridge.

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Confidence was low for the trip to Villa Park, and it was no surprise. Villa have generally been unbeatable at Villa Park this season, winning 13 of their 16 home games across all competitions. They were beaten 3-1 by Newcastle last time out, but Chelsea were on a horrid run away from home.

The Blues had lost six of their last seven away games across all competitions, only managing to beat Luton. Before that there were defeats to Newcastle, Manchester United, Everton and Wolves. After it came losses to Middlesbrough and Liverpool.

All signs were pointing to a Villa win, and the hosts started brightly. But then Chelsea struck.

It was a well-worked goal with the ball won in midfield by Enzo Fernandez, passing to Conor Gallagher, who then found Nicolas Jackson. The Senegalese striker, on his first start after returning from the Africa Cup of Nations, ran with the ball into the box and cut it back to Noni Madueke. With his back towards goal, Madueke laid the ball off to Gallagher who passed the ball into the top corner for his first goal of the season.

Ten minutes later it was 2-0 and Jackson marked his starting return with a goal. It was a header from close range after a wonderful cross from Malo Gusto, who had stepped things up after being pegged back by Alex Moreno in the opening exchanges.

Chelsea were in firm control of the game, not really letting Aston Villa make their mark, only really testing Djordje Petrovic once in the first half.

“It’s like the old Chelsea,” Roy Keane said on ITV at half-time.

“Brilliant. Strong, physical, sharp in possession. Everything you want. Players getting into pockets, pace, good decision-making.

“Two quality goals. Chelsea have been excellent, took them five or 10 minutes to get going but after that they’ve been outstanding.”

It was a similar showing in the second half, and the Blues were 3-0 up within 10 minutes of the restart, thanks to an exquisite free-kick from Fernandez that even caught Gallagher by surprise — watch out for his reaction in the replays.

The Argentinian, sending a free-kick into the top corner against his compatriot Emiliano Martinez, celebrated by removing his shirt and pointing to his name on the back. In a week where it had been reported that he is open to leaving, this was a statement from Fernandez.

It means Aston Villa have now conceded eight goals in their past three home games across all competitions, also letting in three against Newcastle and then two vs Burnley. Cracks are starting to appear in their fortress. But should we have really been surprised? Although Aston Villa were unbeaten in their last three games against Chelsea, all three of those were at Stamford Bridge. At Villa Park, Chelsea have now won three in a row, also winning in December 2021 and October 2022.

Chelsea looked even more comfortable from then on and although Aston Villa pulled a goal back in injury time, threatening again, they saw things out. It ended with Chelsea passing the ball around with flair near the corner flag, seeing the game out with a calmness that hadn’t been seen for a long time.

A much needed win, Chelsea vice-captain Ben Chilwell insisted it wasn’t a victory just for the players and manager to ease some pressure.

After the match, Ben Chilwell said: “It was exactly the reaction we wanted and needed. It wasn’t about wanting a reaction. We needed it. Fair play to all of the boys,” he told ITV Sport.

“We wanted that pressure. We thrived off it. The confidence before the game in the changing room was the best I have seen it – the togetherness.

“We delivered on the pitch today.

“I think as a club, the players, the manager, the staff, everyone at the training ground, the fans. I think everyone associated with Chelsea needed that result today.

“So it wasn’t just us or the manager, it was for everyone associated with the club. We knew he needed to deliver today to get to the next round.”