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Chelsea cling onto fourth place despite loss at Aston Villa

Thomas Tuchel’s side frustated at Villa Park but escape after Spurs win at Leicester

Aston Villa 2 Chelsea 1

The notion that Tottenham would do Chelsea an enormous, skin-saving favour at the very last would have felt laughable to everybody at Stamford Bridge. The rivalry between the clubs runs deep; ditto the sense of mutual contempt. It might have felt similarly unlikely to everyone at Aston Villa, given how easily Dean Smith and his players had won at Spurs’s stadium last Wednesday. On that occasion, Spurs were awful.

And yet on an afternoon of high drama, when Chelsea fluffed their lines at a racuous Villa Park, they could be indebted to Spurs, whose come-from-behind win at Leicester conferred a rich reward upon them. It allowed Chelsea to finish fourth and ensure Champions League qualification via the league.

Chelsea might yet win the tournament this season – they face Manchester City in the final this Saturday – and, in that event, they would have returned as the holders next season. But at least they are now in for sure, securing a qualification that is always viewed as essential by the club’s hierarchy.

Thomas Tuchel has been an excellent manager since his arrival at Stamford Bridge towards the end of January at a time when, in his words, Champions League qualification was the “maximum target” with the team lagging in ninth place. Here he was a lucky manager.

Chelsea were loose in front of goal, they made mistakes at the back and they struggled to maintain their discipline, with the captain, Cesar Azpilicueta, getting himself sent off in the 89th minute for lashing out at Jack Grealish.

The Aston Villa winger, Bertrand Traoré, formerly of Chelsea, put his team in front on 43 minutes and then won the second-half penalty from which Anwar El Ghazi made it 2-0. Although Ben Chilwell pulled one back for Chelsea, they needed a win – unless they were to catch a break from elsewhere. How they did so. It is the law of football that there will be no thanks to Spurs from the Chelsea support. The relief, however, was overwhelming.

Tuchel had explained that it was “better to be all in” with his selection, rather than rotate with the City final in mind, to be fearful of injuries, and his line-up was pretty much the strongest available to him, although there was no N’Golo Kante. The key midfielder was not risked as he carries a hamstring problem while Edouard Mendy, the goalkeeper, would be withdrawn at half-time.

There was the novel sensation for Chelsea of needing to take the crowd out of the equation and it was always going to be a tall order. It is remarkable how much noise 10,000 fans can make, although it was extremely disappointing to hear some of them boo as the players took a pre-match knee in the fight against racism.

Anwar El Ghazi celebrates after scoring Aston Villa’s second against Chelsea. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/EPA
Anwar El Ghazi celebrates after scoring Aston Villa’s second against Chelsea. Photograph: Richard Heathcote/EPA

For the Villa die-hards, it was sweet to be back, particularly with the season that their team has had, and the team fed off their energy. Nothing to play for? It never feels true in this competition and it was clear from the early exchanges that Villa were determined to give Chelsea a problem.

Villa felt that Jorginho had gone to ground too softly at the outset and there was the moment on 27 minutes when Jack Grealish jumped into a tackle on Mason Mount and watched his England rival take a necessary piece of evasive action. Grealish felt that Mount was trying to con the referee and had a verbal pop at his opponent. No love lost? The tension simmered and not only between those two.

Chelsea knew what they had to do. It was about them, they had told themselves, and not what would happen at Liverpool or Leicester. But it was tough going for them. They played on the front foot in the first-half, with Tuchel wanting to make inroads up channels or to work openings via give-and-goes off Timo Werner.

Most of the approach work was snappy enough but there was precious little penetration; too many poor final decisions. Chelsea had flickers around the Villa box but their only real chance before the interval came on 24 minutes when Azpilicueta turned the ball inside for Mount only for him to snatch at the shooting chance.

Chelsea were in at hole when Villa caught them cold with a training ground corner kick routine. The concession had followed a heavy touch from Thiago Silva and worse was to follow for the visitors when nobody spotted Traoré bending his run from the back post and around a posse of players for the near post.

Matt Targett’s delivery was perfect, pulled back low and, although Traoré’s connection looked a little scruffy, the shot beat Mendy off the underside of the crossbar, having bounced down before flying up.

Chelsea felt their blood run hot. Jorginho, Werner and Kovacic were booked and they had a mountain to climb when Traoré drew Jorginho into an unwise challenge inside the area after allowing a low cut-back to run across his body. Mendy’s replacement, Kepa Arrizabalaga, was sent the wrong way by El Ghazi.

Moments earlier, Christian Pulisic had miscued when well placed from a Werner cross – he watched the ball hit Targett and trickle wide of the post, with Emi Martinez wrong-footed – and the feeling that it would not be Chelsea’s day deepened when Werner found the net on 59 minutes only for an offside flag to go up against Azpilicueta in the build-up.

Tuchel went for broke, replacing Jorginho and Kovacic with Hakim Ziyech and Kai Havertz. Pulisic and Chilwell marauded up the flanks, with Reece James as the lone defensive midfielder in what was a 3-3-2-2 formation and, after Havertz had lifted high, Chilwell converted a Pulisic cross.

Realistically, though, Chelsea needed help from elsewhere and it came when Spurs found the equaliser at Leicester. Havertz had a shot blocked by Tyrone Mings but by now, there was as much interest on the events at the King Power Stadium. Chilwell was denied by Martinez but the decisive late moments would be provided by Spurs. - Guardian

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