Does anyone remember the last time that Chelsea beat Aston Villa away? I barely do, because we're on our fourth manager since. Guus Hiddink is the last Blues boss to get three points from Villa Park, and Carlo Ancelotti only managed a 2-1 loss in the title winning season and then a 0-0 draw last year. Villa have been something of a bogey team recently, and Chelsea have to get a win in order to avoid falling even further behind in the race for fourth place.
Game Date/Time: Saturday, March 31st. 3:00 PM BST (10:00 AM EDT).
Venue: Villa Park, Birmingham.
TV: Fox Soccer Channel (USA).
On a normal day, the major news here would be that Aston Villa are suffering through a host of injuries. Richard Dunne is out for the season. Darren Bent is out for the season. Charles N'Zogbia is injured. Things are pretty bad for the midlands club. But all of that was overshadowed today with the announcement that club captain Stiliyan Petrov has been diagnosed with acute leukemia. Although Petrov isn't a Villa icon in the same way that John Terry is at Chelsea, having something like this happen to your captain would be pretty damn heartbreaking no matter what.
It seems churlish to follow that up with Chelsea's injury news, but otherwise this wouldn't be much of a preview - it looks as though Branislav Ivanovic has made a quick recovery while Raul Meireles has handed the team a boost by injury his knee. On paper, this all means that Chelsea are capable of fielding a team that can blow their hosts off the park.
Paper is different to practice though - the same was true when the Blues entertained (and I do mean that) Villa at Stamford Bridge to close out 2011 and they went ahead and embarrassed us 3-1. What can we do differently here? Since Chelsea are manifestly the better team, it all comes down to playing out game. Here are the keys:
Control the ball. If Chelsea want to avoid surprises, the best thing they can do is slow the ball down and make this a slow, predictable match. Nothing good can come of a deviation from the script, so Chelsea should be prioritising control rather than opening up the match and exposing themselves for a counterattack. In practice, this means controlled, patient buildup rather than flicks and tricks that risk losing the ball in midfield.
Set pieces. If Villa play as badly as the relative lineups would indicate that they should, their best chances will come off set pieces. Furthermore, Villa are really, really bad at defending corners and crosses, and with Dunne out their defence will be unhappy should Chelsea get the ball into crossing position.
Breaking down a deep defence. I'd expect Villa to be fairly defensive, because Alex McLeish's philosophy is pretty close to pure anti-football, which means that Chelsea will need to work hard to break them down. They could do so be either doing all those flicks and tricks I asked them to avoid two bullet points ago, or they could look to stretch play as best they can, shifting the defence left to right, taking long range shots when they pop up and crossing frequently. I like this option better.
All in all, that means I come up with this:
Yep, it's weird. Most of it should make sense given the bullet points - I think you need Drogba and Cahill on the pitch, and having two strikers makes sense given Villa's weak central defenders. The wide players can come inside to reinforce the centre here as well. I know Roberto di Matteo hates going away from a 4-2-3-1, but this is almost the same thing. If you're going to rest Mata, and I think you should, why not give this a try?