Preview: Chelsea v Aston Villa
You have to go all the way back to 21st February 2004 to find the last time Chelsea lost at home in the Premier League. Since then 85 teams have attempted to beat the Blues at Stamford Bridge but none have left with more than a point.
One of the teams to go closest to ending that sequence is Aston Villa. Last December they played out a thrilling 4-4 draw, despite leading 2-0, in a game that had everything. 8 goals, 3 red cards, 5 bookings and 2 penalties. It was so crazy, even Andrei Shevchenko managed to score. Not once, but twice.
Both clubs have got off to impressive starts to the season, even if they have different expectations as to where they will finish. Chelsea’s chase for the title has started well, especially their 4-0 opening weekend victory against Portsmouth. Since then their form has dipped slightly, even if the results haven’t, and despite Felipe Scolari’s intention to attack more, they have been far more efficient than breath-taking.
Aston Villa’s ambition changed as the summer progressed. A lack of transfer activity early on and it looked like they may tread water this season after an impressive campaign last year. But a flurry of arrivals including Nicky Shorey, James Milner, Carlos Cuellar and Luke Young has meant that they now have a squad that could, quietly, challenge for a Champions League place.
The 3-2 defeat away at Stoke City is the only blemish so far on a start which sees them in third position after 6 games and for Martin O’Neil the most pleasing aspect may be that he has been able to start the same 11 players in each of those games.
Sunday’s game would normally be a real test to show how far Villa have progressed and how serious they are about becoming a force in the Premier League. However, if there is ever a time to play Chelsea then surely it is now.
The current league leaders are expected to be without Alex, Ashley Cole, Deco, Ricardo Carvalho and Didier Drogba for the tie. Joe Cole is back training and could be fit and captain John Terry has declared himself fit, even if he only has one leg to play on.
This amount of injuries would test any squad but if any team can handle such a situation, then it is Chelsea.
O’Neil’s selection worries come from the dilemma of weather or not to change a winning side. Big money signings Cuellar and Milner won’t want to sit on the bench for long but there are no obvious candidates to drop out.
Naturally a central midfielder, Nigel Reo-Coker has brought energy and solidarity to the right flank and Stiliyan Petrov is finally starting to show the form he displayed so often at Celtic. Gareth Barry has put the Liverpool transfer saga behind him and has shown signs of recapturing the form that generated Rafa Benitez’s interest in the first place. And Ashley Young has developed into one of the league’s top left wingers and his relationship with Gabriel Agbonlahor and John Carew is vital to Villa’s attacking threat.
Yet despite Chelsea’s injury woes, much will depend on the ability of Villa’s central defensive partnership of Martin Laursen and Curtis Davies , to resist the threat posed by Nicolas Anelka, Frank Lampard and the in-form Salomon Kalou. If they can do this then they may be able to exploit Chelsea at the back, where the injuries have hit the hardest.
It is undoubtedly the pick of the weekend’s fixtures and it would be great to see Villa arrive at Stamford Bridge looking to win. Too many teams set-up not to lose when they go away to one of the ‘big four’ and O’Neil should take confidence from his sides performance in last year’s corresponding fixture and that this year they can go one better.