To steal a line from Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady,” will the real Chelsea please stand up?
Going into the Aston Villa match on Saturday, I’m not really sure if we’re the team that has looked devastatingly confident against Benfica and Napoli in Europe, or the team that looked insipid and lethargic against Tottenham in a match that would have made our chances at the top 4 much easier.
Saturday will go a long way to determine that with another must-win game at Villa Park. Our record there has been abysmal as of late, but this is a different Villa team.
With Branislav Ivanovic shaking off his thigh problem and Raul Meireles being the only injury doubt, chances of victory look very good indeed.
If this was Martin O’Neill or Gerard Houllier’s Aston Villa, I’d be worried.
It’s not. Having decided to watch Villa matches in the build up to this fixture, there’s one thing I’ve noticed. If it wasn’t for Villa grinding out a few early season results, they’d be right in the thick of the relegation battle on their current form.
Many questioned the logic of appointing Alex McLeish as the manager for this season if for no other reason than he guided Birmingham City to the Carling
Cup last season. Nothing says, “annoy the supporters” more than appointing the manager of your most hated rival.
Not only have the supporters not taken to McLeish, but also now it looks like the players aren’t either. If Villas-Boas was a dead man walking in his last days at Chelsea, McLeish might be standing in his own grave.
Last week against Arsenal, his team looked like they were there just to get their weekly paychecks and go for a stroll. They lacked any kind of passion, and you have to wonder if the McLeish method of “all hands to the pumps” really suits a team that does have some creativity and flair.
They’re a team on the decline, and we should really be beating them.
That being said, they still have Darren Bent and Gabriel Agbonlahor.
If Bent and Agbonlahor don’t score their goals, Villa have trouble scoring.
Those two have accounted for almost half of the 31 goals that Villa have scored this season. The interesting thing is that both look rather jaded at the moment.
Neither player really looks like they want to be there, and you have to wonder if they don’t perform for Villa, who will?
That being said, Darren Bent does have a history of being a thorn in our side, and Agbonlahor still has the pace to threaten any defender in the country; if they play to their potential, they can still cause us problems.
Villa’s biggest weakness is their lack of pace in the back line. It can be exposed.
If there’s one place to attack Villa, it’s directly at their back line. They suffer from a chronic lack of pace as neither Carlos Cuellar or James Collins are particularly blessed with pace. In addition, neither is great on recovery speed either when beaten. That was on evidence as Theo Walcott absolutely roasted the Villa back line last week, and a goal was the least of his rewards.
The Blues should be used to playing against a backline lacking pace as I’ve been amazed at how slow the Napoli and Benfica defenders looked on the European stage. We never really got a chance to attack Tottenham’s lack of pace, but the tools were there to do so.
Against Villa, it’s a must.
Roberto Di Matteo will earn his money with his upcoming team selections.
If we progress against Benfica, as is expected, between March 31 and April 21, we will face 6 matches in 22 days. The second leg of the Quarterfina in the Champions League, two semifinal legs in the Champions League, an FA Cup Semifinal, and matches with Wigan and Arsenal in the league.
The need for rotation in the squad is massive, but the players that come into the team must perform. If the players play as they did at Tottenham, the chances of qualifying for next year’s Champions League could very well hinge on winning the whole thing.
This is where Di Matteo must keep the squad focused and prepared.
There’s no chance to slip up and every man in that first team squad will be asked to perform. If Di Matteo successfully guides us to 4th place and a trophy, he will have done all he can to audition for a permanent position at the club.
Finally, I think I speak for everyone in wishing a speedy recovery to Villa’s captain, Stiliyan Petrov.
Petrov was diagnosed with acute leukaemia today, and I think we all wish him well for a speedy recovery from a serious illness. Some things are more important than football, as we’ve seen on display in the last few weeks, so I think it’s appropriate to end this column with get well wishes for him.
Prediction: Chelsea 3-0