Birmingham City 0 // Chelsea 0
Man of the match Branislav Ivanovic (Chelsea)
BIRMINGHAM // An ability to stoically persevere is one of Carlo Ancelotti's many strengths as a manager. Ask yourself when you last heard the Italian complain about a referee. Or an opponent, or one of his own player's performance, or his resources. Or anything.
It is a remarkable trait in an era of the instant excuse, the press-conference citation of every problem.
Roman Abramovich, the club owner, loves Ancelotti for his discretion, delights in the pools of serenity it has brought to Chelsea's turbulent public image.
When Ancelotti announced his team for this visit to a troublesome venue 24 hours before kick off it was not through bravado but a lack of options. A squad already dieted down by the enforced shedding of five significant wage packets was beginning to look slightly emaciated as Didier Drogba, Alex, Salomon Kalou and Yossi Benayoun joined Frank Lampard on the casualty list.
Ancelotti had played the loyal diplomat's line to its extreme, smiling at his lack of options while declaring himself "happy" at an opportunity to test the quality of Chelsea's squad. Private concerns about the likely results, though, were about to be uncomfortably realised.
Without their two most productive goalscorers, Chelsea started sluggishly in all departments. Villa squandered early opportunities to take advantage and held their lines after the break. Ancelotti's men extended their Premier League advantage to five points, but this was not a reassuring evening.
"I'm not disappointed," said Ancelotti. "We knew that it was a difficult game, we lost here last year. This year was better. We maintained the top of the list and we have five points on Manchester United. This is good."
In Chelsea's attack there was the enforced selection of a youngster who epitomises the corporate chaos Ancelotti has to hold counsel on. Gael Kakuta was poached from Lens, the French club, to the ultimate cost of a transfer ban and many millions in compensation.
Having gone to such expensive trouble to acquire his potential, Chelsea have allowed Kakuta's contract to run down to the point where he can negotiate with foreign clubs in 11 weeks' time.
Kakuta was poor last night, his passing imprecise and his shooting wilder still. Nicolas Anelka was almost absent from Villa's penalty area and there was just one weak Michael Essien shot on target in the firt half.
"Kakuta is very young and it was maybe not the best game for him, but he worked for the team," said Ancelotti. "We have to continue and believe in these players.
With Kakuta "disappeared" at half time, Yuri Zhirkov installed on the left wing, and Florent Malouda flitting across the attacking line, Chelsea became a presence again. Malouda and Anelka had shots parried as Chelsea exerted their authority on a tiring Villa team.
"We are getting there, we are getting nearer the 90 minutes," said Gerard Houllier, the Villa manager, referring to his side's fitness. "It will take time. I know some people are maybe moaning but training is not to pass time. Training is to improve. Training is to practise to win. You've seen the physical level of Chelsea today, we had to compete with that."
With full time approaching, Branislav Ivanovic headed a corner flush against the post. Villa's Ciaran Clark glanced a free kick against Petr Cech's upright in response. As time faded away, Anelka sent a free header against the woodwork, while Nigel Reo-Coker lofted a shot past both Cech and post. Ancelotti needed his best stoic face.