In a curious twist of fate, two of this weekend’s fixtures mirror the FA Cup semi-final draw, with Spurs taking on Portsmouth and Aston Villa providing the opposition for Chelsea at the Bridge. The Wembley date will be shunted to the back of the mind temporarily though as the Premier League comes first, and with a title race as close as the shave on Joe Cole’s head, points mean prizes. With just seven games left for the big boys, any match can spawn a plethora of possibilities, and the Villa game is no different.
With Arsenal away at Villa’s near neighbours Birmingham City, and Manchester United facing a late kick-off at Bolton on Saturday, the best case scenario would see us two points clear at the top of the Premier League come 7.30pm. On the flipside, a performance akin to the Blackburn draw last weekend – or worse – would put us third again, looking up at our escaping title rivals.
Perhaps fortunately, Villa haven’t been on top form in recent weeks. Of their last five Premier League matches, wins have only come against Burnley and Wigan, with draws against Stoke, Sunderland and Wolves costing them points. They haven’t lost in the league in 2010 though, with their last defeat coming at home against Liverpool – who scored through a last minute Fernando Torres goal – on 29 December 2009.
Sitting 7th in the league, Villa have only lost two games at home and their away form is adequate too. Six wins, five draws and three defeats is not too different from our own eight wins, four draws and four defeats, but Villa have only scored 16 away goals compared to our 30 (buoyed by five at Pompey on Wednesday).
Villa are looking good on the injury front though, with just Nigel Reo-Coker unavailable. Our injury list seems to grow by the day on the other hand, with Riccy Carvalho the latest player to fall foul to an ailment. The Portuguese defender leaves us with just two fit senior centre-backs, and he joins six other players on the sidelines – Michael Ballack and Hilario, who could return for Saturday, and Branislav Ivanovic, Michael Essien, Ashley Cole, José Bosingwa who won’t – which puts us joint top of the Premier League injury table. Great.
Our recent results against Villa have been far from comfortable too. Apart from a sensational 2-0 win in October 2008 under Luis Felipe Scolari and a 4-0 League Cup victory in November 2006 (in which Andriy Shevchenko scored), our recent form hasn’t been great. The reverse fixture this season resulted in a 2-1 Villa win, with Richard Dunne and James Collins scoring to cancel out Didier Drogba’s opener. Incidentally, that was the first time this season we scored first and dropped points, a trend which has recently started up again.
Another memorable meeting was the 4-4 at the Bridge on Boxing Day 2007 (in which Sheva bagged a brace!), but you have to go back to the final day of the 2002 Premier League season for Villa’s last win at Chelsea. In a dead rubber of a game, a week after losing the FA Cup Final against Arsenal, goals from a young man named Peter Crouch, a bright England prospect Darius Vassell, and future Sky pundit Dion Dublin scored Villa’s three goals, with Eidur Gudjohnsen netting a penalty for us to give a little gloss to the scoreline in a 3-1 defeat.
Peter Walton is the ref for Saturday’s FA Cup warm-up, with the Northamptonshire official fresh off the battlefield that was the City of Manchester Stadium on Wednesday, which saw David Moyes and Roberto Mancini dismissed to the stands after a spate of handbags and a chin to chin – well, tactfully designed club-coloured scarf in Mancini’s case –confrontation.
Walton doesn’t just limit his red cards to bosses though, as his five so far this season will testify. Curiously enough, all of them have come in games involving the ‘big four’, and two in Chelsea games, which could suggest he’s taking the Graham Poll approach to self-publicity. He sent off Florent Malouda for two bookings against Birmingham on Boxing Day, and Jlloyd Samuel against us on Halloween in a 4-0 win over Bolton. He also sent Nani off for Manchester United against Villa in February, the last game he reffed involving either side.
With Villa fighting for a place in next season’s Champions League – to think, they’re actually looking forward to a spot in the tournament – and the race for said berth almost as tight as the chase for the title, they have their own reasons for desperately wanting a win on Saturday. They can’t be trusted week-in, week-out though, and before anyone shouts, ‘Well nor can we’, our 5-0 win on Wednesday over Pompey was without getting out of first gear. If the Blackburn game was a blip, then let it end there and forever be forgotten, because we’re living in the present now and to use an old footballer’s cliché, we’re taking it one game at a time.
And we win games, don’t we?