Aston Villa 1-3 Chelsea: ‘Mauricio Pochettino’s best night of a traumatic season’
Chelsea’s fans mirrored the mood of dysfunction and crisis hanging over the club by opening this dramatic FA Cup night at Villa Park with a loud lament for lost owner Roman Abramovich.
It did not last long, cut off in full cry as Conor Gallagher’s crisp finish at The Holte End instantly brought songs of a different kind, setting the tone for Chelsea’s finest moment of this mess of a season under manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Chelsea’s form has been so dismal that any talk of victory in this fourth-round replay at Aston Villa was placed into the bracket of an FA Cup shock – not exactly Maidstone United winning at Ipswich Town level, but a shock nonetheless.
How wrong we all were. The sound of a script being torn up could be heard at Villa Park inside 20 minutes, so unexpected was this Chelsea performance and outcome.
Chelsea’s desperate plight when they arrived here made this outstanding 3-1 win, fully deserved after a superb team display, so much sweeter in a stadium where Villa have won 13 games and lost only two in all competitions this season.
The stock of co-owners Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali, and to a much lesser extent Pochettino, had sunk so low that Stamford Bridge echoed to praise for Abramovich and former manager Jose Mourinho when Chelsea scraped the barrel losing 4-2 at home to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday.
Yes, it was that desperate.
There was even an unwanted – unwanted by Chelsea and Pochettino at least – social media intervention by Isabelle Silva, wife of defender Thiago Silva, when she posted on “X” after the Wolves debacle: “It’s time to change. If you wait any longer it will be too late.”
Mrs Silva apologised before kick-off while Pochettino insisted the reason Mr Silva was sitting behind him on a bench at kick-off time was because of “performance and balance”, not as a punishment for his wife’s – her words – “outburst”.
Raheem Sterling joined Silva with a watching brief, paying the price for a season that has gone into sharp decline after a bright start, especially in two poor performances in the heavy defeats at Liverpool and at home to Wolves.
Chelsea, despite cup competitions being their salvation so far this season after reaching the EFL Cup final against Liverpool, were firm underdogs against a Villa side on the crest of a wave in the Premier League’s top four and so formidable on their own ground.
The time was crucial, too, with Pochettino under more scrutiny than at any time since his summer appointment, Villa supporters revelling in his misfortune with a group chanting the trademark: “You’re Getting Sacked In The Morning.”
Not after this he isn’t.
Enzo Fernandez scored a superb free-kick for Chelsea at Villa Park
Pochettino’s job was not under immediate threat but the tension around the club and, most significantly, results and shambolic performances meant he could not afford an FA Cup exit otherwise the storm clouds will have gathered more heavily.
The Argentine insisted he had received messages of support from Chelsea’s owners, but history tells us this is the most volatile of clubs and plenty is already riding on that Wembley meeting with Liverpool on 25 February.
What he needed most of all was Chelsea to turn up, for this hugely expensive scattergun collection of a squad to actually show what they are made of, to at least show they are worth something of the vast outlay spent on bringing them together.
And Chelsea did. In style, in a most pleasant and unexpected surprise for the 6,300 Chelsea fans who loved almost every second of this rare night of unalloyed joy this season.
Gallagher and Nicolas Jackson had Chelsea in the driving seat inside 21 minutes, leaving Villa stunned and manager Unai Emery wearing the most pained expression as he stood on the sidelines.
Chelsea were quicker to every ball, stronger, faster than Villa, whose fans could barely believe the manner in which their team was being overrun, overpowered.
Malo Gusto was outstanding at right-back, the variety and flexibility of Chelsea’s attacking strategy illustrated by the manner in which he delivered a cross from the left for Jackson’s header.
Such has been Chelsea’s fragility and flimsy character this season that the fear for them was an early Villa goal in the second half would derail their dramatic improvement – not a bit of it.
Instead, it was left to Enzo Fernandez to deliver the quality he has kept hidden too often at Chelsea with a magnificent 54th minute free-kick, up and over Villa’s wall and tantalisingly out of the reach of his Argentina team-mate and fellow World Cup winner, keeper Emiliano Martinez.
Moussa Diaby’s injury-time goal made no difference. This was Chelsea’s and Pochettino’s night, their best of this traumatic season.
As Chelsea took the acclaim of their fans, Pochettino marched off with an understated clenched fist, directing a cameraman away from him towards the players who have taken so much flak but responded so impressively.
Pochettino will know this is only a start, a platform, but it was a mighty impressive one he will hope is repeated at Crystal Palace next Monday evening.
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