AHHH (Photo by Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images)
2011 begins with yet another incredibly tough fixture continuing an absolutely brutal stretch for Villa that will mercifully come to an end soon. Chelsea are scuffling at the moment, having dropped all the way to fifth in the table after looking absolutely unbeatable at the start of the year. It's doubtful that you are in need of a reminder that Villa are having their own struggles at the moment and their spanking at the hands of Manchester City at the Eastlands has led to a sense of dread amongst the faithful. Chelsea may be off form at the moment but are still one of the greatest collections of footballing talent the world has ever seen while Villa have alternated between looking like a promising but unfinished product and a side that would struggle to finish mid-table in League One. And while the Blues struggles of late are well documented, their most recent contest saw them perform well in the second half to edge a very good Bolton side.
There are reasons to be somewhat optimistic (or perhaps 'less pessimistic' is a more apt description) heading into this contest than one might think, but leaving the Bridge with any points to show for it will still be an incredibly difficult task. Villa look to be closer to full strength than perhaps at any other point this year with Emile Heskey and Ashley Young both looking to be available tomorrow and Luke Young being the only notable first-team player likely out of action. Chelsea are likewise recovering from a slew of injuries to key players but they are still without Alex and Yuri Zhirkov. Frank Lampard showed that he is close to being fully fit against Bolton and if this is the game that sees him return to his old self then Villa could be in for a world of trouble. To balance that, however, Branislav Ivanovic is suspended, meaning Jeffrey Bruma will be handed his full Premier League debut tomorrow--a possible defensive weakness that Villa should attempt to exploit.
These two clubs are both desperate for points. When you've had the success that Chelsea have enjoyed in recent years the pressure to challenge for the league and finish top-four is immense and at the moment they aren't living up to expectations. Villa's position is of course far more perilous and a result at Stamford Bridge would no doubt do wonders for the spirits of all those invested in the fortunes of the club. To do more than hang on, Villa are going to have to take points from a few fixtures that they wouldn't be expected to, and given all of the extraneous circumstances this game looks like one of their better opportunities to do so. That doesn't mean it's likely to happen, but then again losing by six goals in the midst of a race for the Champions League isn't especially likely either so hey, who knows.
If Villa hope to have a chance in this game they must prevent Chelsea from scoring early. We all saw what happened to the team after Machester City went ahead and if not for the red card awarded to Jermaine Defoe shortly after Spurs scored the first in the previous fixture the same fate might have awaited them. The sense of dread that sets in after Villa concede early is palpable; you can see it in their poor decision making and their body language. This is not a squad that has a great deal of confidence in their ability at the moment and while I think they are trying to do their best, the fight is taken out of them far too easily. Never before have I seen a team that is capable of performing as well as this one go down so easily. A big part of that can likely be chalked up to the youth and inexperience of the squad, and in that regard then the return of senior players such as Nigel Reo-Coker, Stiliyan Petrov and Richard Dunne will most likely help. That doesn't tell the whole story though; a lot of it is down to the players have a lack of belief in their ability to turn their fortunes around and that's not just limited to the kids.
The good news is that players don't get to this level without having a tremendous amount of self confidence. That can be fleeting, but if the capacity for it is there in the first place it can be found again. And regaining that belief in themselves may very well be as simple as performing well enough against Chelsea to secure a result. Remember that just one week ago this squad put in a quality performance against a decent West Brom side. Despite the result and the man advantage their play against Spurs wasn't really all that bad either. To hear some tell it Villa have been consistently terrible for months now, but that just isn't the case. They haven't done enough, but the promise has been there a lot of the time. The Manchester City game was awful to watch and did nothing for anyone's confidence, but it was an isolated incident that's being treated like it's representative of the season at large. The capacity for those games is there, but so is the capacity to play a veteran Manchester United side off the park with a squad full of players barely old enough to drink for 75 minutes.
I'd like to see a bit of a different look from Villa tomorrow, with a deeper defensive line and more of an emphasis on the counter attack. Gerard Houllier is clearly trying to change the footballing culture at the club and while the direction in which he is moving is one that I largely think is a good one I also think that the club is in severe danger of entering a tailspin and that it is important to get the ship righted as soon as possible. Chelsea are not a team that Villa can take the game to at the moment and another embarrassment could very well doom Houllier's tenure as manager and lead to problems the likes of which wouldn't have seemed possible just six months ago. I'd like to see Emile Heskey get the start (assuming he is fit enough to do so) even if it comes at the expense of Gabriel Agbonlahor. Downing and Albrighton need a big target for those crosses and Villa's attack in general needs someone capable of holding up play and allowing the more pacey players to take the fullest advantage of their speed. I recognize that the long-term goal is to play a style of football that does not depend on such a player but we're not quite there yet and Houllier must make some concessions. I'm not after a return to the thinking-man's-kick-and-rush tactics of Martin O'Neill, just a style slightly more geared towards preventing the defense from becoming overexposed and allows the talents of the squad to be better utilized.
In the end, what Houllier chooses to do is anyone's guess. I'll admit that I'm not especially confident about this game but who is confident when their team is set to travel to Stamford Bridge? I'm not going to play into the belief that this club is awful, beyond help and doomed to the Championship because none of those things are true. This is a club with a lot of talent and a lot of inexperience that are off form and in the midst of one of the toughest runs of fixtures you'd ever want to see. Eventually they're going to do something that surprises us (in a good way.) Tomorrow's as good a time as any.