Villa Following Familiar O'Neill Blueprint
Even by the full-blooded standards of the Premiership, Saturday's truncated programme provided several matches of rollicking entertainment: Robin van Persie's comic-book flying volley, Phil Jagielka's 90th minute 30-yarder to give Sheffield United their first Premiership victory and Manchester City's even later equaliser at Everton all thrilling the senses. No less riveting, if not as sensational, was Aston Villa's wrestling of a point from Stamford Bridge.
Martin O'Neill has begun his stewardship of Villa in unsurprising fashion: injecting confidence into hitherto cowed players, deploying a settled team and demonstrating the benefit of showing loyalty and belief in players to perform at the limit of their potential. Anyone who has followed O'Neill's managerial career thus far, in particular his successful spells at Leicester City and Celtic, will recognise the imprint of the charismatic Derryman's already on Villa this season.
Undefeated and in good form coming in to Saturday's meeting with Chelsea, O'Neill was nonetheless realistic. "The players have done very well indeed but we are going to hit a period where we can't get a result and that's going to happen and perhaps then that will be the real test for us; but at the moment I'm very pleased," he said following the previous weekend's victory over Charlton. Many would have expected that first blip of Villa's season to have come at Stamford Bridge.
Indeed, after Chelsea took a 3rd minute lead following a characteristically physical storming of the Villa barricades, it seemed the home side somewhat complacently regarded the first defeat of O'Neill's Villa to be a fait accompli. The underestimation of their opponents' new spirit was to cost Chelsea two valuable points and their position at the top of the league.
While there is no doubt that Chelsea had the better of the chances, probably more of the play and, were it not for wobbly finishing from substitutes Kalou and Wright-Philips, would have had the points, this was never a Villa rearguard action. Aside from the opening ten minutes and periods in the second-half, Villa carried the game to Chelsea, firstly in search of an equaliser, then subsequently in the end-to-end spirit of a pulsating match.
Villa themselves could have taken all three points had Angel taken the back-post opportunity presented him in the closing minutes, or had the Colombian had the pace to get away from Claude Makalele a few minutes earlier when seemingly clean through on goal.
Chelsea's familiar style - a sort of boa-constrictor football, where they seem to slowly crush teams to a combination of physical strength and mental fortitude - was never able to subdue Villa. Instead the Birmingham side intelligently used the ball, with Stilian Petrov and Steven Davis orchestrating a calm but confident response, which utilised Gabriel Agbonlahor on the right as its prime attacking thrust.
The Villa youngster has been one of the revelations of the season so far, and his terrifying pace and tricky footwork gave Ashley Cole well, something of a roasting frankly. Celtic fans will recognise in Agbonlahor a similiar player to Didier Agathe, the flyer recruited for £50,000 in O'Neill's first season at Parkhead who became one of the key players of the Ulsterman's tenure.
It seems, even at this early stage, that Operation O'Neill is going exactly to plan.