On a chilly and sombre day in the midlands, Chelsea crept closer to Champions League qualification next season – that is, if they don't win the competition this time around – with a nerve-jangling victory over a young and eager yet brittle Aston Villa side. They threw away a 2-0 lead, allowing Villa to draw level, but two late goals crowned an entertaining encounter that was perhaps needed after the desperate news emanating from Villa Park the previous day, when it was announced that Stilian Petrov, the Villa captain, had been diagnosed with acute leukaemia.
Chelsea, ending a run of three successive away defeats, now lie two points behind Tottenham, who play Swansea City at the Liberty Stadium on Sunday, in the chase for fourth place. If they are not yet wholly convincing under the stewardship of Roberto Di Matteo, the interim replacement for André Villas-Boas, they are now resilient instead of fractured. It was Di Matteo's sixth win from eight matches in all competitions since he stepped into the breach. As job interviews go, he is stating his case quite emphatically.
Not that the Italian is comfortable staking his claims verbally. "I will enjoy this for about an hour," he said. "Then we prepare for the next game." That is the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final against Benfica at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday. Chelsea hold a 1-0 lead from the first leg and will have to be sounder defensively than they were against Villa in the second half if they are to repel their Portuguese opponents. "We were strong and dominant today, apart from those five minutes," Di Matteo said. "We had many chances, it was a shame we didn't kill the game off earlier."
As a bonus, Fernando Torres also appears to be rediscovering a semblance of form, now that Di Matteo has shown faith in him – Villas-Boas patently did not – with five starts in his eight matches in charge. Torres lashed in a cross-shot in time added on, after Daniel Sturridge's thrusting run, for his first Premier League goal in six months. Eight goals, though, is still hardly the greatest of returns since he moved from Liverpool to west London for £50m in January last year. Yet if Torres has problems, perspective almost engulfed Villa Park. The match had been overshadowed 24 hours earlier with the news that Petrov had leukaemia. Poignant reminders were everywhere, with the players of both teams wearing T-shirts on which were printed "Our Thoughts Are With You" during their pre-match warm-ups.
A statement was also read out on Petrov's behalf over the PA system, in which he said. "I am sure I will beat this illness and I am determined to do this," he said. "For me, football will have to take a back seat for a while but I will continue to support my team-mates." Petrov will start receiving treatment on Monday but, despite reports in the Bulgarian media, he has not retired. "I've not heard anything about that," Alex McLeish, the Villa manager, said. "We saw 'Stan' in the dressing-room before the game and I think some of us weren't sure whether to applaud or cry. He shook everyone's hand and everyone embraced him."
Torres played a role when Chelsea went ahead in the ninth minute. Salomon Kalou dinked in a cross from the right, Torres touched it on to Juan Mata and collected the return pass. Shay Given denied Torres but the ball squirmed to Sturridge, who guided in his 12th goal of the season from close range. More applause for Petrov broke out in the 19th minute – he wears the No19 shirt – but Chelsea maintained their concentration. "It was an emotional day," Di Matteo admitted, "but once the game starts, you have to focus."
Branislav Ivanovic stretched the advantage, perhaps using a hand to help control Juan Mata's corner before he planted it into the net, but Villa fought back with two goals in three minutes, James Collins nodding in powerfully from Eric Lichaj's long throw and then Marc Albrighton crossing for Lichaj to tuck in the leveller. But with a plucky draw appearing on for Villa, Ivanovic headed in his second goal and Torres fired home in stoppage time.
Chelsea have their eyes on Europe, this week and next season, and Villa should have enough in the tank to survive their battle against relegation. For Petrov, the battle is just beginning.