Aston Villa 1 Chelsea 2
Jose Mourinho conceded the Premier League title at Villa Park last season but this was a potentially seismic afternoon for Chelsea. Mourinho has frequently seen his team unravel on trips to Spaghetti Junction in recent years yet this victory, a first win here in six attempts for the Portuguese, felt like a defining moment.
Branislav Ivanovic underlined his enduring excellence with the crucial goal and despite Manchester City's late equaliser against Hull, even Mourinho had to smile barely 24 hours after his sullen teenager act at Cobham. He now holds a seven-point lead over Manuel Pellegrini and this was a deafening statement from his team, doing all talking required after his ow of silence.
Villa did end their drought, scoring a first league goal in 11 hours, but there are other statistics that remain grim reading for Paul Lambert, such as two wins from 20 games.
Mourinho now only has Newcastle to cross off his list after ending his wait for a win at Villa Park and the title is in sight, even if he is remaining cautious.
"In another country I would say the lead is fantastic but in this country it is nothing," he said. "Seven points means seven points but you have 14 matches to go. We are speaking about 42 points to play for and I think it's nothing. This was a very important victory but we have to focus on ourselves and win the next game.
"Was I surprised about City's result? I'm surprised about nothing, every team can take points but I didn't care about it. Somebody told me after the game, I did not think about it. We will go step by step."
Mourinho has usually viewed trips to Villa with a sense of dread. His first spell in charge was brought to an abrupt end in 2007 when he was sacked shortly after a 2-0 defeat, while last March he wrote off Chelsea's title hopes after Fabian Delph's late winner.
Villa are proving accommodating hosts to many opponents, however, on a day when Lambert marked his 100th league game in charge by dropping Christian Benteke, despite the club's chronic goal shortage. It took eight minutes for Chelsea to expose Villa's defensive frailties. Oscar broke clear of Jores Okore on halfway, advancing towards the penalty area to find Willian whose low pass was turned in by Eden Hazard.
It was ruthlessly simple and Villa supporters must have been fearing a long afternoon. Fans in the North Stand attempted to provide Lambert's players with assistance by holding paper arrows pointing to the goal.
Villa did respond, with Gabriel Agbonlahor heading Ashley Westwood's cross narrowly over the bar but they had the cutting edge of a plastic spatula.
These encounters have become fractious in recent years and at times it threatened to boil over as the tackles rained in. Lambert and Mourinho have also clashed in the past three meetings and the Villa manager exchanged words with the Chelsea bench late in the first half, later revealing he had been annoyed by a comment believed to have been made by coach Rui Faria. "I would love to learn off him [Mourinho] as a football manager but I wouldn't want to learn things off the pitch from someone in his dugout," Lambert said afterwards.
He was celebrating three minutes into the second half, however, after Villa rediscovered the art of goalscoring. The impressive Carles Gil beat Oscar on the right with an exquisite drop of the shoulder and his cross found Okore at the far post unmarked, with the Dane waiting to head home. "We're Aston Villa, we'll score when we want", chanted a stunned Holte End.
The game was threatening to drift away from Chelsea but they regained their lead after yet another defensive calamity. This time it was Okore who contrived to give the ball away and Cesar Azpilicueta's cross back into the box found Ivanovic, who hooked a half-volley into the corner. Juan Cuadrado, the pounds 26.8?million signing, was introduced as a substitute with ten minutes to go and Chelsea coasted to a vital win without any late scares. Their first league title in five years is in sight.
Villa are slipping ever closer to the relegation zone after four successive defeats and suddenly their trip to Hull City on Tuesday night has taken on mammoth proportions. Lambert said: "Our season will not be defined with what happened against Arsenal and Chelsea, it is about from now on in."