Aston Villa 0-4 Chelsea
The sun was out over lunchtime in Birmingham today. This being so, a chance to get a head start on the year's tanning was about the best excuse around to spend a couple of hours holed up in Villa Park watching the dying embers of Aston Villa's long Premier League tenure. Heavily discounted tickets played a part too alongside a curiosity to find out how the faithful fans were reacting to their dire predicament.
To that end they did not disappoint, but it took the cumulative effect of opposition goals before we reached peak tension and by the end it had been replaced by stoic resignation. At least it had for Bill who sat next to me, in a seat he calls his own and has done for over 40 years. He has seen relegation before and seemed unfazed by the future, preferring to focus on the problems of the day; "we just can't score", he told me after a couple of early chances were easily dealt with by Thibaut Courtois. Later, when Chelsea opened the scoring he knew the game was up: "we've had it now. All season as soon as we go behind they give up, their confidence has gone."
Having taken over first team duties in the week, Eric Black took his role seriously and spent the entire game on the edge of his technical area; he looked the part, sadly for him his team didn't. For twenty minutes the game meandered as a slightly reserve Chelsea side played neat touches and found little penetration. For Villa a clear tactic showed itself early: find Rudy Gestede's head. So, find it they did but no instruction seemed to have been made to follow up the play and his isolation was an odd but recurrent theme. He did his job, and may well be a useful asset down in the Championship, but here he had little purpose. A different isolation could be seen around Jordan Ayew, who got the crowd interested by trying things, most of which did not include his team mates and few of which had the desired outcome.
It would be cruel to compare the four incongruously cheerful pre-match mascots to Aston Villa's defence but fielding Aly Cissokho, Alan Hutton, Joleon Lescott and Micah Richards in a 2016 Premier League fixture seemed equally as inappropriate. Lescott, an early crowd villain thanks to his social media woes, seemed keen to take responsibility for organising his team alongside Richards, but neither were helped by the simplicity in which Chelsea navigated the ball around their defensive associates. Cissokho's side was exploited easily for the first Chelsea goal and he had a poor game, but Hutton secured crowd favour having been noted as repeatedly "trying", a method that concealed his otherwise ineffective defensive play.
Beyond that, in and around central midfield was where the game was won, Ruben Loftus-Cheek towered above the diminutive Villa men and looked capable, and with Cesc Fabregas attempting to dictate and Jon-Obi Mikel doing a routine clean up job in behind, it was far too easy for Chelsea to dominate and succeed, without ever having to up their tempo. Idrissa Gueye was involved but erratic and Carlos Sanchez and Ashley Westwood didn't have the game to overcome their stature.
Interest was piqued with the arrival of the mythical Alexandre Pato midway through the first half and the penalty he won and scored will detract from the fact that he looked incapable of sprinting throughout and tired almost as soon as he arrived on the pitch. His recent absence is thus easily explained and a quick comparison to a latter year Michael Owen seems apt. For more wild comparisons, Kenedy has a touch of Neymar in his gait and style but his sole notable contribution was to remove his mask in a fit of pique and play on without it.
So 1-0 flattered Chelsea a little, 2-0 on the stroke of half time killed the game and 3-0 after some neat interplay involving Oscar, Pato and Pedro as soon as the second half started meant some seats were never reoccupied.
Sub-plots exterior to the game soon took hold after the fourth went in. A large exodus took place and I narrowly avoided a soaking as one fan launched his mostly full water bottle at the wall behind me. Those that remained had a chance to vent their frustrations at Leandro Bacuna, who was booed relentlessly by his own fans in response for claiming a return to Holland and the Champions League was on his agenda. It can be presumed his performances have not been of that standard as "Champions League, you're having a laugh" rung out; one of the few all-in songs from the home crowd.
Then on 74 minutes the signs went up: "Proud History. What Future?" and those that had stayed had their chance to protest. The poisonous atmosphere dissipated rather quickly and the signs turned into a giant game of paper planes with each one that reached the pitch greeted with a loud cheer, a pastime that took precedence over the football as time wore on. By the final whistle, many littered the pitch edges, discarded, the point having been made, if not heard.
Lastly, Hutton's red card failed to dim the crowd's enthusiasm for him, even in failure he was still lauded for "trying" and applauded off.
The last time I had visited Villa Park was in 1992 and I stood in the Holte End. When Dwight Yorke scored, the place erupted and a crush of buoyant joyous fans leapt all over each other; the ferocity surprised me. I was just a kid back then, and I suspect a younger Bill will have jumped out of his seat in the Trinity Road Stand. This time, the only time people stood up was to leave early and the noise from the crowd was critical of their own players and the owner. Little among what was seen today bodes well for their future, unless they find someone to run onto Gestede's knockdowns.