Dec 23, 2012, 5:02 PM EDT
After one of the most lopsided matches you’ll ever witness at soccer’s top level, Chelsea is no longer the shriveling shell of a European champion emasculated by a shaming trip abroad. And Aston Villa is no longer the feel-good story of a consolidating youth movement smolten by an up-and-coming coach. After 90 minutes and eight goals Sunday at Stamford Bridge, those narratives were destroyed, Chelsea handing Villa an 8-0 thrashing in London.
With a score that lopsided, it goes without saying it could have been worse. Chelsea put 15 shots on target to Villa’s one. They also had a penalty kick saved by Brad Guzan, the Villa keeper’s last act of defiance after goals from Fernando Torres, David Luiz, Branislav Ivanovic, Frank Lampard, Ramires, Oscar, and Eden Hazard gave the American a platoon of tormenters to take to the team psychologist. Villa was so bad, they let Ramires score twice, the Brazilian’s 90th minute goal mercifully ending the embarrassment.
The performance crushes any notion Aston Villa are on the rise. They came into the match in 16th place, only three points above the drop, but having gone undefeated in six, Villa was thought to be the ascendent. Now you look back at their run and see a League Cup win, games with Reading, Queens Park Rangers, and Stoke, and a home draw with a brand-over-substance Arsenal.
But Aston Villa’s win last week at Liverpool — a 3-1 victory that saw Christian Benteke and the Villa counter bayonet the Reds — would have been enough to carry hope into today’s match. Even if their unbeaten run was built more on wish-casting than results, the victory at Anfield was enough to expect better on Sunday. Have any expectations been so devastatingly ill-placed?
But just as the narrative of a surging Villa was eviscerated at Stamford Bridge, so was the Chelsea fans’ worry after a demoralizing trip to Japan. There they lost the Club World Cup, leaving the few (mostly South American) players who care about the competition bawling on the field as Corinthians celebrated a world title. That tactics sheets pulled from the team’s garbage misspelled the name of Corinthians’ goalscorer while stating obvious strategic admonitions (watch for counter attacks after corner kicks) added a layer of farce to a cringeworthy trip.
Crushing another Premier League team always has a was of making everything seem better, especially when there are so many positives beyond the ridiculous score. The win moved Chelsea back into their place, the team holding a game in hand on the collection of challengers who’d temporarily passed them. Frank Lampard was back. David Luiz looked good in midfield (and over dead balls, as the second goal showed). Fernando Torres actually scored a goal. All the ancillary positives meant the game could have ended 2-0 and given Chelsea one of their most positive afternoons of the season.
And it’s with that perspective that today’s true significance lies. As far-fetched as an 8-0 scoreline seems, it’s only one result. One team got three points. The other got none. Where the real implications lie are in the future.
For Chelsea, there’s little doubt the Rafa Benítez mistake is starting to come good. It was a bad hire at the wrong time, but a man with his track record is bound to bring some positives to the job. After such an unambiguous sign that the fall’s worries are receding, Chelsea fans can discard their misgivings and begin to embrace the melancholy of the next six months.
No, Chelsea’s not title contenders. And yes, life with Rafa’s going to be a six months of waiting for a terrible roommate to finally move out. But now, there’s something positive to build on.
For Aston Villa, they’ve stumbled back down the stairs. For all the positives fans have seen in Paul Lambert’s first season, the team is still a relegation candidate. While they’re not favorites to go down, they’ve shown themselves capable of that special kind of horrible that may never assuage doubts. Not even the good runs can been seen as independent of the specter that another Stamford Bridge waits around the corner.
Villa’s now three points above the drop and have the worse goal difference in the Premier League. And their next game is against Tottenham, a team just as capable as Chelsea of exploiting the terrible defending on display at Stamford Bridge. And there’s no guarantee Brad Guzan will be as good on Wednesday.
That’s the power of 90 minutes. Chelsea and Aston Villa had spent weeks building their narratives, and within 90 minutes (much fewer, if you consider the disparity was clear long before the final whistle) their stories were destroyed. The surging swapped places with the morose.
You see that about as often as you see an 8-0 final.
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