Stamford Bridge, West London
16:00 hrs GMT; 23rd Dec, 2012
Chelsea FC have seemingly survived yet another managerial firing. It looked like it would all unravel for the Blues, but despite Rafa’s stint going 3 games without a win and a loss in the finals of the Club World Cup, Chelsea look like they’re heaving a sigh of relief. Much of it has to do with the 5-1 hammering of Neil Warnock’s Leeds United, but there is a growing perception that Rafa Benitez’s olive branch is at least being eyed by Chelsea’s faithful, even if it is with a healthy dose of suspicion.
Aston Villa have come into their own, giving Paul Lambert a reason to smile, with a well-deserved 3-1 win over Rafa Benitez’s former side, Liverpool FC. Lambert will hope his side, on a run of 5 games without a loss, can take out a vastly superior Chelsea side.
Team News and Tactical Brief
Rafa Benitez seemed to show a spark of technical genius that has eluded many a Chelsea coach, 4 to be precise. David Luiz has been quite the puzzle for every manager since Carlo Ancelotti was at the helm. Flamboyant in his marauding runs up front, Luiz is technically suspect at the back, oftentimes being the chief reason for Chelsea‘s troubling porosity at the back. Benitez seemed to suggest his experiment playing Luiz in midfield, might not be short-lived after all. With Ivanovic and Cahill both more reliable in central defence, Luiz could be deputed as Lampard’s or Ramires’ more adventurous counterpart.
John Terry’s much-heralded return has failed to transpire. The captain is likely to sit the whole festive season out, because of recurrent swelling in his knee. Benitez referred to his predicament with a shaky recovery, as taking one step forward and another step back.
With Chelsea’s ostensibly more direct style of play, in the final third, Fernando Torres seems to have gained a new lease of life. It didn’t work against the Corinthians, but the Spaniard shook off any complaints of jet-lag to put in a commendable performance that smacked of a real hunger for goals. The Blues will need Torres to re-establish that psychic link with fellow countryman Juan Mata if Chelsea are to take a vital lead in the game.
Against a club like Villa that has gotten so good lately at counter-attacking, conceding an early goal is suicidal. In a bid to catch up, Chelsea could leave themselves even more exposed at the back, giving Villa the opportunity to really rub salt into their wounds. Benitez will hope Chelsea don’t decide to catch up on some much needed sleep during the game.
Probable Starting Line-up (4-2-3-1): Cech(GK); Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Cahill, Cole; Luiz, Lampard; Moses, Mata, Hazard; Torres
It’s seemingly hard for Lambert’s men to do anything wrong lately. They have the added advantage of more days of rest than their opponents, not to mention a resolute game plan that knocked Liverpool back into oblivion. Villa also have history on their side, breaking a decade long run of winless attempts at Stamford Bridge last season.
What is likely to trouble Villa, however, is the absence of the reliable Gardner and Petrov, and the potential absence of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Darrent Bent for thigh and hamstring troubles respectively. Lambert will persist with his version of a 5-man defense that will likely expose Torres’ loss of pace in recent years, but he’ll be hoping his striker Benteke does enough damage up front than any magic from the young and diminutive Chelsea brigade are reduced to an afterthought.
With only the likes of Holman, Westwood and Bannan to call upon in midfield, Lambert is likely to have conditioned his team to expect a rollicking in midfield. Villa will grant Chelsea the lion’s share of possession at Stamford Bridge, and expect their 3-man midfield to operate in tandem with their packed defensive lines to create an impenetrable barrier for the Blues. Villa are also likely to rely on Benteke’s talent in the air, coupled with Chelsea’s drastic drop in average squad height, to make long balls a strong factor in their game plan.
Probable Starting Line-up (5-3-2): GuzanGK); Lichaj, Baker, Clark, Herd, Lowton; Holman, Bannan, Westwood; Weimann, Benteke
Player to Watch Out For
Frank Lampard (Chelsea)
The old guard is back, or at least some of it. Lampard’s authority in the center of the pitch has been unmistakeable as Chelsea’s performances have gone up a notch, taking the results up with it. The talismanic midfielder will need to hold the fort, as Hazard and Mata weave their magic, and also restrain the impulses of the younger, more adventurous players in the squad. Lampard might not end up on the score-sheet, considering his retreated role, but it’s hard to see Chelsea winning if Terry’s deputy has a bad day at the office.
Christian Benteke (Aston Villa)
A lot of Lambert’s fortunes will ride on the Belgian star, who has comfortably positioned himself as Villa’s leading scorer with 5 goals. When you compare that with the more celebrated Torres and Mata, who each have 6 goals to their credit, his talent becomes all the more worthy of commendation. Benteke’s preference to be on the right of Villa’s attacking pair, means he will match wits with Ashley Cole and Gary Cahill. Villa’s man of the moment should relish the opportunity to take on a young gun and one of the best in the business. Sunday’s game could be a watershed moment in his career, if he plays his cards right.
Chelsea 2 – 1 Villa
We’re going to give this to Chelsea by the slimmest of margins. While each side have their advantages with Villa being on a roll, and Chelsea playing at home, they’re also dealing with some worries in the form of key injuries and jet lag, respectively. The differentiating factor then is Chelsea have a more talented squad of substitute players to choose from. The game will probably be a closely fought encounter, with Chelsea dominating the midfield but Villa looking threatening every time they get the ball up front.