Premier League | Villa Park | Sat 15 Mar | 5:30pm
Unpredictable Villans versus the table-toppers, who'll be desperate to end Jose Mourinho's Villa Park hoodoo.
He'll no doubt shrug it off, but the Chelsea boss doesn't hold many good memories of Villa Park. Despite the league dominance of his first Chelsea team, Jose's first three league visits all ended level with his Blues scoring just once, before a stifled display in a 2-0 loss to Martin O'Neill's side saw Roman Abramovich exit the ground early, no doubt dreaming of Pep Guardiola and Ronaldinho as he attempted to beat the Birmingham traffic. It proved to be Mourinho's last away game before he was sacked, swiftly replaced by serial winner Avram Grant.
ASTON VILLA FORM
- Aston Villa 4-1 Norwich (Prem)
- Newcastle 1-0 Aston Villa (Prem)
- Cardiff 0-0 Aston Villa (Prem)
- Aston Villa 0-2 West Ham (Prem)
- Everton 2-1 Aston Villa (Prem)
- Chelsea 4-0 Spurs (Prem)
- Fulham 1-3 Chelsea (Prem)
- G'tasaray 1-1 Chelsea (CL)
- Chelsea 1-0 Everton (Prem)
- Man City 2-0 Chelsea (FAC)
Seven years on, and while Mourinho looks on course to win a third league crown with Chelsea, much has changed for Aston Villa.
The top-six finish they achieved that season seems out of reach for Paul Lambert's current squad, while the words 'fortress' and 'Villa Park' haven't been seen together in the same sentence since the last decade. Lambert's side have won just four out of 10 games at home this term, with 17 of their 31 points coming on the road.
That's not to say the Scottish gaffer hasn't got them moving in the right direction, however, with last season's relegation tussle – the nadir being an 8-0 hammering from Chelsea at Stamford Bridge – unlikely to be repeated this time around.
Indeed, Lambert's charges will be desperate to get back out on the pitch come Saturday having not kicked a ball in the claret and blue since a resounding win over Norwich on March 2, when they scored four first-half goals in a league game for only the second time in their history (the other being vs Wimbledon in 1995 for any stattos).
With Chelsea keeping nine clean sheets in their last 13 league games, a similar goal blitz on Saturday is about as likely as John Terry picking up the phone to Roy Hodgson, but that's not to say Villa can't cause problems for the league leaders.
As Mourinho's men demonstrated in their last outing to the Midlands, February's 1-1 draw at West Brom, they have struggled to kill teams off on the road this season, despite creating countless chances. As Jose noted after the equally frustrating stalemate against Galatasaray in the Champions League: "Some other teams have three chances and score three goals. We have five and score one. We create but when we arrive in the final third of the pitch, the correct pass and right movement is something we don't have. We are paying for that, in the Premier League we are losing points and in the Champions League we could have had a different result."
The last meeting was a fiery affair, Branislav Ivanovic somehow avoiding a second yellow for an elbow on Christian Benteke, just minutes before the big-bottomed Serb beat Brad Guzan with a thumping header. And then there was Terry's injury-time handball which referee Kevin Friend failed to spot as Chelsea won 2-1.
With Lambert targeting glory in the newly formed breakaway division known as the Premier League Mid-Table Obscurity Shield (the prize being a top-half finish), he'll be hoping the good fortune swings back Villa's way.
Villa's on-loan wide man Ryan Bertrand is ineligible against his parent club, although a permanent switch will likely suit all parties come the summer. “Paul Lambert was one of the main catalysts of me coming to this club, because he’s a manager whose teams play the way that I like to play," said the 24-year-old, who is relishing being a regular after so many years as a bit-part player at Stamford Bridge. “He really encourages you to express yourself on the pitch so it’s always a pleasure to play this way."
Charles N'Zogbia is unlikely to return before the campaign's end due to a long-term Achilles tendon injury.
For the visitors, Mourinho will be without Fernando Torres for at least Saturday's game, as well as next week's Champions League second-leg against Galatasaray, after the Spaniard limped off in the warm-up against Spurs. "Torres has a muscular problem, and even when they are small it is always a couple of weeks," said Mourinho. With both Samuel Eto'o and Demba Ba scoring against Tim Sherwood's men, it's fair to say the gaffer won't be losing too much sleep over the seemingly cursed Spaniard's absence.
Key battle: Christian Benteke vs John Terry
Matching last season's 23-goal heroics was always going to be an almighty task for Benteke, and the Belgian's last two games have been typical of an up and down campaign. After bullying the life out of Norwich – his brace including an overhead kick that will surely make Match of the Day's shortlist for goal of the season – he proceeded to miss an open goal from eight yards out while on international duty against Ivory Coast.
But much like West Ham's Andy Carroll, even when out of sorts the former Genk man can still be a right nuisance to play against, and Chelsea's Captain-Leader-Legend will need to stay tight to him from crosses and set-pieces. Of Benteke's 9 league goals this season, 5 have come from his head – the highest in the top-flight – while he's scored in his side's last two meetings against the Blues. Last time out against Norwich, he won 10 out of 12 aerial duels, the highest in the match on both counts, while at Stamford Bridge in August he won 12 out of 22 – incredibly more than double any other player in the game on both counts.
On Saturday Benteke will be up against the player who has benefitted as much as anyone from Mourinho's Chelsea return. After a couple of seasons in which errors crept into his game, Terry has been in inspirational form under the Portuguese, and was typically solid in last weekend's second-half hammering of Spurs.
After weeks of speculation regarding a possible Three Lions return, the Blues' skipper put the matter to bed after the match. "A lot went on with myself and England," he said. "I love playing for my country, and I was very proud to do that. Unfortunately things have changed and moved on, and I am concentrating on playing well and hopefully keeping us top of the league." The decision has no doubt been of great benefit to Chelsea, with the 33 year-old looking as focused as ever out on the field.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Chelsea 2-1 Villa (Prem, Aug 13)
- Villa 1-2 Chelsea (Prem, May 13)
- Chelsea 8-0 Villa (Prem, Dec 12)
- Villa 2-4 Chelsea (Prem, Mar 12)
- Chelsea 1-3 Villa (Prem, Dec 11)
Lambert and Mourinho almost came to blows when the sides met back in August, facing-off on the touchline after Lambert reacted to Ivanovic's elbow, before Terry's late escape left the Scot raging in his technical area. "Lambert reminds me of myself 10 years ago when I was complaining every decision," said Mourinho. "I wanted to coach my team and at same time have a whistle in my lips. With experience, he will change, but now he complains over every decision. He is a young manager, very intelligent, he does very, very well in that he adapts to quality of his players. I like him, no problem."
Lambert could have been excused for feeling a touch patronised by such comments, but he took them as a compliment: "I remind him of him? He's a brilliant football manager, make no mistake about that, he's done it in every country he's been in. If in six years, I'm like him, I'd be pretty happy."
Facts and figures
- Villa have lost all 7 of their home games this season against the current top half.
- Chelsea are unbeaten in 14 games with 11 wins.
- Chelsea have conceded in 22 of their last 25 trips to bottom-half teams.
- 8 of the last 9 meetings between these teams have had at least 3 goals with 4 seeing 6 or more strikes.
- Villa have conceded first in 11 of 14 home matches this season.
Mourinho and Terry to be left cursing as a lack of prolificacy costs Chelsea again. 1-1.