Opening this dramatic FA Cup night at Villa Park with a loud outcry for lost owner Roman Abramovich, Chelsea’s supporters matched the atmosphere of discord and turmoil hovering over the club.
The mood was short-lived, as Conor Gallagher’s precise finish at The Holte End immediately introduced songs of a different genre, igniting Chelsea’s best moment of this disastrous season under manager Mauricio Pochettino.
Given Chelsea’s recent terrible performance, any discussion of an FA Cup shock—well, not quite the same as Maidstone United won at Ipswich Town—was categorised with any talk of success in this fourth-round match against Aston Villa.
It was somewhat unexpected, both the Chelsea effort and the result, to hear the sound of a screenplay being torn apart at Villa Park within 20 minutes. Due to Chelsea’s alarming circumstances upon their arrival, their incredible 3-1 victory—which was well-earned following an incredible team effort—was all the more sweeter in a venue where Villa had won 13 games and only lost two this season across all levels.
As Chelsea edged a 4-2 home loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers on Sunday, the reputations of co-owners Todd Boehly and Behdad Eghbali, and to a much lesser extent Pochettino, had become so low that Abramovich and previous manager Jose Mourinho were praised around Stamford Bridge.
When Isabelle Silva, the wife of defender Thiago Silva, commented on “X” following the Wolves catastrophe, she made an unwanted – at least undesired by Chelsea and Pochettino – social media intervention: “It’s time to change. It’ll be too late if you delay it any longer.”
Pochettino stated that Mr Silva was seated behind him on a bench at kickoff time due to “performance and balance,” not as retribution for his wife’s – in her own words – “outburst.” Mrs Silva apologised before the game.
Following a stellar start to the season, Raheem Sterling’s play was limited to watching little time under Silva. This was particularly evident in his two poor outings during the crushing losses to Wolves and Liverpool at home.
Even though Chelsea has survived this season thanks to cup competitions—they defeated Liverpool in the EFL Cup final, for example—they were clear underdogs against a Villa team that was riding high in the Premier League’s top four and was extremely strong at home.
At the same time, Pochettino was being scrutinised more than he had been since his summer signing, and Villa supporters were celebrating his misfortune by shouting their catchphrase, “You’re Getting Sacked In The Morning.”
While Pochettino’s position was not in danger, the club’s tension, together with the FA Cup results and dismal performances, were the main reasons he could not afford to lose. Had he lost, the storm clouds would have collected much more.
Although Chelsea is known for being the most turbulent club, the Argentine said he had received messages of support from the club’s owners. A lot is already riding on the outcome of Chelsea’s match against Liverpool on February 25 at Wembley. Primarily, he expected Chelsea to show up. This incredibly costly squad needed to demonstrate its capabilities and prove that the significant money invested in its acquisition was worthwhile.
Chelsea did, too. The 6,300 Chelsea supporters who enjoyed nearly every minute of this unique evening of pure delight this season were greeted in style, with a most pleasant and unexpected surprise.
In just 21 minutes, Gallagher and Nicolas Jackson had Chelsea in command, leaving Villa in disbelief and manager Unai Emery looking extremely hurt as he watched from the sidelines. Villa’s supporters were in disbelief at how easily their team was being overwhelmed and overpowered, but Chelsea was stronger, faster, and more agile with every ball.
The way that Malo Gusto sent a cross from the left for Jackson’s header demonstrated the versatility and adaptability of Chelsea’s offensive approach. Malo Gusto was excellent at the right-back.
Chelsea was terrified that an early goal from Villa in the second half would completely undo their tremendous improvement since they have been so fragile and lacking in character this season.
Enzo Fernandez, who has been hiding his true abilities at Chelsea, came through with a stunning free kick in the 54th minute that went over Villa’s wall and just out of the reach of Emiliano Martinez, the goalie who also happened to win the World Cup for Argentina.
It didn’t matter that Moussa Diaby scored in injury time. This was Pochettino and Chelsea’s finest night of this torturous campaign. Taking the applause from the Chelsea supporters, Pochettino left with a discreetly clinched fist, pointing the cameraman in the direction of the players who had faced a lot of criticism but had bounced back so brilliantly.
Pochettino is aware that this is only a platform and a start, but it was a very remarkable one, and he will be hoping to replicate it at Crystal Palace on Monday night.