Guus has stepped in, we’re in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup, and there seems to be a breath of fresh air circulating around Chelsea. Okay, so it’s only been one game and that was under the watching eye of tactical mastermind Ray Wilkins not Mr Hiddink, but still it seems as if we could be set for a very interesting end to the season. Although the league is surely beyond us, qualifying for next season’s Champions League is not, and with Aston Villa successfully implanted in the top four it is imperative that we keep up with them and hopefully overtake them to give us a bit of breathing space. So who have we got this Saturday? Ah yes, of course: Aston Villa.
Although it’s still too early in the season to declare it a straight shoot-out for the Champions League berth, a win for either side would be a major confidence boost. To find out what we are up against, I caught up with someone who knows Villa best, the editor of fansite VillaMAD, Tom Vickers, and put some questions to him:
CFCnet – What are your thoughts on Villa’s season so far?
TV – We have been much stronger than I expected us to be at the start of the season. Martin O’Neill has instilled a never say die attitude, especially away from home and you can see the results. We’ve won seven away games on the bounce in the league, which is fantastic and we are now really challenging the big four.
At home we have struggled at times because we have played predictable football, with not enough support for Gabby Agbonlahor. With John Carew out we failed to find form at Villa Park and lost crucial points against Middlesbrough and Fulham.
But, we now have Emile Heskey, who can lead the line well and hopefully we will see the benefits of his signing as the season comes to a close.
CFCnet – Who have been your key players and why?
TV – Our key players have really been Gabby Agbonlahor, Gareth Barry and perhaps somewhat surprisingly Luke Young.
Gabby has been in fine form and he really causes problems for teams on the break. He is a big part of why we have been so successful on the road as his dynamic pace makes him hard to stop.
Barry, as always, has been Mr Consistent. W really missed him against Everton at the weekend as Steve Sidwell just couldn’t match Barry’s performance level. He is everywhere at times and keeps the team ticking along.
Luke Young has simply been immense this season. He has been converted into a left back by O’Neill and hasn’t looked out of place at all. He is solid defensively and offers plenty going forward. He has subsequently and deservedly been called into the England squad.
CFCnet – Any players not exactly pulling their weight?
TV – Carlos Cuellar and Nicky Shorey have been the biggest disappointments this season.
Cuellar’s distribution is shocking and you expect better from a £7m plus player.
Shorey has failed to establish himself in the first team after some distinctly average performances. With Young impressing and Wilfred Bouma on the comeback trail, I think he will be sold in the summer.
CFCnet – What are your thoughts on Villa’s supposed title challenge?
TV – It is a fairytale really. If you had said Villa were being tipped for the title at the start of the season I would have laughed at you. But, we have been so confident away from home that we now believe anything is possible. Unfortunately, we have sustained some key injuries and our squad is too small to cope with that. We would have to win at Old Trafford and Anfield to realistically talk about the title and I don’t think that we will, but it’s nice to be mentioned as title challengers.
CFCnet – Why do you think the neutrals are rooting for Villa to do well this season?
TV – Two reasons really.
The first is because most people really dislike the big four and the influence that they have on the English game. [Neutral] fans have no affection for Manchester United and Arsenal so they want to back a surprise package. Everyone likes to root for the underdog, don’t they?
Also we have a predominantly English squad and that has secured more backing for what we are doing. We are going about things the right way and have a group of players who have passion for the English game rather than a bunch of imports who are only here for the money.
CFCnet – What would be your ideal end to the season?
TV – Winning the title!
But realistically a top four spot and a UEFA Cup win would be superb. Whether we can achieve both is debatable but if I had to pick one, I would probably choose breaking the top four as I feel we could really push on next season if we could attract the top players.
CFCnet – As an outsider looking in, what are your views on Chelsea this season?
TV – I think that they have been a little unlucky the way that their season has gone as they started like a runaway train. Scolari had them firing away from home and they looked unbeatable at times. But after that Liverpool defeat at Stamford Bridge the confidence just seemed to evaporate.
They started to doubt themselves, especially at home, and as everyone knows, confidence and morale is a big part of any successful team.
The squad is quite old now and I think they need to do what Manchester United did a few years ago and rebuild, even if it means just scraping a top four spot [this season].
CFCnet – Who do you feel are our key players and why?
TV – Frank Lampard and John Terry are the obvious ones.
They are the heart and soul of the team and just as Barry does for Villa they keep the team ticking over and keep the victories coming.
I also think that Michael Essien is crucial and that without him Chelsea have really suffered. I haven’t seen enough from John Obi Mikel to be able to say that he fits into the team. I just think Essien drives the team forward and when they are struggling, he can lift the tempo and put in some tough tackles.
Mikel doesn’t have the same influence.
CFCnet – Of the previous meetings between the two sides, what have been your most memorable moments?
TV – Obviously the 4-4 at Stamford Bridge last season was pretty special but I wasn’t there so I won’t reference that too much.
I just think that all of our home victories against Chelsea in recent seasons have been brilliant. Last season we really stepped up to the plate and in the end we won comfortably at Villa Park.
Zat Knight’s debut goal was really special and for some reason we play our best football against you.
CFCnet – How is Steve Sidwell settling in since his summer move?
TV – He has been good to average really. He has chipped in with a few key goals and really put himself about. But, at times he fades from games and his heading has been nothing short of shocking.
I think he will prove to be a good signing given time but he is definitely no replacement for Barry, as he was tipped to be last summer.
CFCnet – What is your predicted line-up for the game?
Friedel, L Young, Davies, Knight, Gardner, A Young, Barry, Petrov, Milner, Agbonlahor, Heskey
This is presuming that we don’t get any more injuries and that Nigel Reo-Coker doesn’t return otherwise he will replace Gardner at right back probably.
CFCnet – Predicted scoreline?
TV – I’m going for 1-1.
Villa would be happy with that and I think Chelsea would too.
Obviously Guus Hiddink would like to start with a win but realistically I think his main aim will be not to slip five points behind us.
We could win it if we are as up for it as we were last season, but I just think that the new manager effect will strike.
Thanks to Tom for his answers.
With Ashley Cole suspended and Alex and Ricardo Carvalho reportedly doubtful with injuries, our defence is looking a little depleted. Branislav Ivanovic or Michael Mancienne could feature alongside John Terry in the centre, while Paulo Ferreira is expected to line-up at left-back. Nicolas Anelka and Didier Drogba could start up front together.
For more team news and build-up to Saturday‘s game, consult the excellent Live Match Forum.