Aston Villa have an excellent home record against Chelsea
By Kevin Darling
A below-par Chelsea edged into a five-point lead at the top of the table after being held by dogged Aston Villa.
The hosts started brightly as Stephen Ireland screwed an effort wide and Petr Cech tipped John Carew's shot around the post within the first five minutes.
The Blues improved after the break and Branislav Ivanovic and Nicolas Anelka both headed against the woodwork.
Ciaran Clark also hit the post for Villa while Nigel Reo-Coker spurned a great chance to win it at the death.
A win would have seen Chelsea pull seven points clear at the Premier League summit following Manchester United's surprise draw with West Brom earlier in the day, but they will be pleased with a hard-earned point at a ground where they have only won once in the last 12 seasons.
Villa deserved their point - Ancelotti
They came up against a mature and determined Villa side in Gerard Houllier's first home league match as manager - and the hosts had two excellent early chances to take the lead as Chelsea began in alarmingly sloppy fashion.
First, Stewart Downing raced clear on the counter-attack after Florent Malouda was dispossessed and fed Ireland in the middle, but the Irishman sent his effort just wide.
Moments later, Chelsea again gave the ball away cheaply and Carew found himself through on goal but Cech did well to divert the striker's side-footed effort just past the post.
With Didier Drogba joining Frank Lampard on the sidelines, it was the first time in 11 months Chelsea had been without the pair in a league match - and it showed.
The Blues enjoyed plenty of possession as the game settled down from its frantic opening but they created little to trouble Villa's diligent defence.
It took the visitors 33 minutes to register a shot on target and even that was a regulation save for Brad Friedel from Michael Essien's tame 20-yard effort.
Villa looked far more dangerous and they again went close to an opener when Ireland found space on the edge of the box and hit a fierce goal-bound strike that was heroically blocked by Ivanovic.
Somewhat inevitably, Chelsea emerged for the second half looking far sharper and Malouda's powerful strike at Friedel on 47 minutes was better than anything the Blues mustered before the break.
As the league leaders began to pin Villa back, Anelka created their first real opportunity of the match when he cut inside and forced a good stop from Friedel from 10 yards.
Houllier pleased with Villa progress
The last time these sides met in the league back in March, Chelsea thumped the Villans 7-1. But it soon became clear that a solitary goal was likely to be enough to decide this encounter as the contest became increasingly scrappy.
In the closing stages, both sides very nearly grabbed that decisive strike from a set-piece.
First, Ivanovic powered a header against the post after Malouda whipped in a corner. Then, Ashley Young's free-kick was flicked on to the post by Clark.
The Blues went even closer to notching a winner as injury time approached when Ashley Cole provided an inch-perfect cross for Anelka but the Frenchman contrived to head into the ground and onto the bar.
And there was still time for one last moment of drama when Villa midfielder Reo-Coker won the ball in Chelsea's half and found himself one-on-one with Cech, only to send a dinked effort inches wide of the post.
Aston Villa manager Gerard Houllier: "The only thing missing from a good game was goals. It was football played at a great pace between two good sides.
"We had the better chances in the first half, but we were under the cosh in the second half before coming back at the end.
"We had to make late changes, but I want to pay homage to the players who filled in and the way they responded. They showed great attitude and a great spirit."
Chelsea manager Carlo Ancelotti: "We didn't start so well and gave Villa a couple of good chances, but in the second half we played very well.
"We did everything to try and score. The way we played in the second half we deserved to win, but Villa did well in the first half, so a draw is fair.
"I am not disappointed about failing to go seven points clear. We knew this would be a difficult game. Last year we lost here. This is a good result at this stage of the season, and to be five points clear is good."
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