A Fabian Delph goal nine minutes from time was enough to see off nine-man Chelsea after another frustrating evening in the Midlands.
The midfielder cleverly flicked the ball in, taking advantage of the space left behind by the sending off of Willian midway through the second half. Our Brazilian was harshly shown red for two bookable offences, but the same could not be said of his compatriot Ramires, given an injury-time straight red for a late challenge on Karim El Ahmadi.
We were the better team up to that first red card and were denied a first-half goal when Matic was adjudged to have handled before netting from close range.
A frantic end to a close encounter went Villa’s way and though we stay top, City’s win earlier cuts our advantage over them to six points, while both Arsenal and Liverpool will have the chance to close the gap further when they play tomorrow against Tottenham and Manchester United respectively.
After picking up an injury in the warm-up last weekend Fernando Torres was passed fit and lead the line, while behind him there was a return to the side for the Brazilian pair of Willian and Oscar.
Jose Mourinho kept the defence unchanged for the fifth game running, while there were central midfield starts for Ramires and Nemanja Matic.
Samuel Eto’o had a small injury problem meaning Demba Ba was the sole striker on the bench, and with Ashley Cole and David Luiz also ruled out Tomas Kalas was for the second week running the only recognised defender available to Mourinho.
Villa made one change from their last league outing two weeks ago. Our own Ryan Bertrand was ineligible under the terms of his loan contract so Joe Bennett came in at left-back.
The teams emerged for the day’s late kick-off to a beautiful setting sun in the Midlands and with the travelling Chelsea support – who had enjoyed such a special day here last season when Frank Lampard became our all-time record goalscorer – in fine voice.
Inside the first five minutes Torres was scythed down by Nathan Baker leaving referee Chris Foy with little choice but to show the young central defender a yellow card. Even the home supporters winced at the tackle.
Willian, who recovered quickly from a knock picked up inside the opening three minutes, had our first shot in anger following some patient Chelsea approach play but a deflection took the sting out of it. Villa went straight down the other end and Delph’s delivery was met by Benteke but the big Belgian’s header drifted harmlessly wide.
The game was livening up now. Oscar flashed a cross just over the leaping head of Torres and in our next attack Willian struck from range again. It was a fraction wide, much like an Oscar curler that followed with 15 gone. He had effectively linked up with the busy Willian.
Our Brazilian no.22 was booked on 24 minutes for a late challenge on Ron Vlaar, the same duo that had been involved early in the game when Willian was temporarily sidelined. Like much of the home side’s early attacking intent the ball was played long for Benteke but again it came to nothing.
Torres got in behind Villa’s backline on a couple of occasions in quick succession, first blasting wide from a tight angle and then having a shot blocked as a swarm of claret and blue shirts closed in. Villa’s central striker Benteke then produced an acrobatic effort from the edge of the 18-yard box which zipped beyond Cech’s far post. It was comfortably the closest our hosts had come to scoring.
We had the ball in the net with 40 minutes played but the decision eventually went against the scorer Matic. The Serbian brought down a corner at the back post and squeezed his effort past Guzan, but after some deliberation Foy deemed it handball and awarded Villa a free-kick.
There was time for more controversy before the interval when Ramires burst through before being unceremoniously brought down by Bennett some 30 yards from goal. Foy decided it was not a clear goalscoring opportunity and immediately dished out a yellow card to the stand-in Villa left-back.
For the fourth league game running we went into the break goalless but having shaded the first half.
The momentum we had built up in the closing stages of the first half was carried over to the opening moments of the second. Ivanovic swung in an excellent cross that narrowly evaded both Torres and Guzan, and when Hazard picked up the pieces and put the ball back into the six-yard box Guzan was just able to scramble it away.
On the hour a short corner was worked to Oscar in space in the box but his shot was pretty tame and straight at the Villa keeper. Decent spells of possession in and around the Villa box were now increasingly commonplace but clear goalscoring chances continued to prove at a premium.
Villa broke after one such passage of play and fathomed a glorious opportunity of their own. Benteke exchanged passes with Andreas Weimann and flashed a shot a whisker wide of Cech’s far post.
That was a fortunate escape for the Blues but our luck ran out with 66 minutes gone. Willian and Delph vied for possession and as the Villa man broke forward he tumbled to the ground. Many would not even have considered it a foul but Foy whistled up and showed Willian a yellow card, his second of the game.
Two minutes prior to that Mourinho had brought on both Ba and Andre Schurrle – for Torres and Oscar – in an attempt to inject some attacking impetus to our play and despite the setback of going a man down we kept our attacking players forward in search of a winner.
Schurrle caused some havoc latching on to Hazard’s pass and was kicked by Vlaar just outside the box. From the free-kick Hazard stroked his effort just beyond both the outstretched leg of Ba and the far post.
Villa were looking more confident though and did make their man advantage count with nine minutes remaining. Delph waltzed his way through our midfield and exchanged passes with the recently-introduced Albrighton. From the return ball he conjured up a cute back-flick with his back to goal which squeezed past Terry and Cech and into the net.
Mourinho moved Ivanovic forward for the game’s closing stages but in truth Villa looked pretty comfortable and a bad evening got worse when Ramires lunged in on El Ahmadi and was shown a straight red card. This time there could be no doubting the decision, though Mourinho did question who had made it, with Foy and his assistant referee having initially signalled a Chelsea throw-in. Our manager was also sent from the pitch to the tunnel by the officials.
Delph hit the bar with five minutes of stoppage time up but in the end it was his 81st-minute goal that separated the sides on a disappointing day for the Blues.
Chelsea (4-2-3-1): Cech; Ivanovic, Cahill, Terry (c), Azpilicueta; Matic, Ramires; Willian, Oscar (Schurrle 66), Hazard; Torres (Ba 66).
Unused subs Schwarzer, Kalas, Mikel, Lampard, Salah.
Booked Willian 24
Sent off Willian 68, Ramires 90+4
Aston Villa (4-3-3): Guzan; Bacuna, Vlaar (c), Baker, Bennett (Clark 77); El Ahmadi, Westwood, Delph; Weimann, Benteke, Agbonlahor (Albrighton 74).
Unused subs Steer, Lowton, Robinson, Sylla, Holt.
Scorer Delph 81
Booked Baker 4, Bennett 44, Benteke 66, Vlaar 76.
Referee Chris Foy