I've written about this elsewhere in greater detail, but Chelsea are a team that I find it incredibly difficult to be rational about. To be honest, they scare the hell out of me. Not only are they one of the best clubs in the world, they're a supremely God-awful match up for Villa. When the fixture list is released I chalk the two meetings with Chelsea up as six points lost and pray simply that Villa don't allow themselves to be embarrassed. Which doesn't make a whole lot of sense, seeing as how Villa beat Chelsea at Villa Park last season, but like I said in the first sentence, I'm not really rational where Chelsea are concerned.
Saturday though, well, there's a chance. Not a great chance, but a chance. Chelsea are dealing with some pretty significant injury issues, most notably at the back. Frank Lampard is still hurt, and Lampard against Villa's central midfield presented quite possibly the biggest potential mismatch in the game. Didier Drogba will not start. Chelsea's defensive corps is weakened by injury, although the naming of John Terry to the XI is a positive for the Blues. Gerard Houllier has not been shy about emphasizing the counter, and Chelsea's only loss this season came to Manchester City who employed a similar strategy in order to secure the result. The key to Villa staying in this game will come down to two things; whether they can effectively pressure Chelsea's back line on the break and capitalize on those opportunities should they arise, and whether they can maintain enough possession to prevent Chelsea's offense from running rampant.
It's not all wine and roses for the Villa boys; Gabriel Agbonlahor is still out and now it would appear the Emile Heskey's ability to play is up in the air. That would leave only John Carew and Nathan Delfouneso as strikers, and though I'm anxious to see what Delfouneso can do I am not sure that throwing him into the fire against Chelsea is all that excellent of an idea. If Villa are ever going to try to run a 4-3-3, tomorrow would be the day; playing with two midfielders holding could be effective in slowing down Chelsea through the center of the pitch, which could then result in Villa nabbing a greater share of the possession. If you read Kirsten's chat with Graham from We Ain't Got No History you might recall this bit:
It actually depends on how well Marc Albrighton is doing down the right for Villa. If he can keep Ashley Cole busy, Malouda's far less of a threat to drift infield and away from Luke Young. If he can't, and if Yuri Zhirkov is playing, that entire side is very very dangerous - and I don't think Young and Collins can stop Cole, Zhirkov, and Malouda if they decide to go marauding down that side.
As much as I love Marc Albrighton, I'd wager that Ashley Young is a bit more of a threat to occupy Cole's attention. If Ireland is fit to play he can slot in as an attacking mid, giving Villa numbers equal to Chelsea in the central midfield and giving Villa a better chance to keep the ball a bit more.
If you'll allow me a bit of cynicism though, I'd wager the odds of Houllier choosing to alter the shape are fairly slim. Expect to see the standard 4-4-1-1 tomorrow. With that being the case, what to watch for? As always, the battle in the center of the pitch will be crucial. Chelsea thrive on laying siege to the opponent's goal, and even without Lampard and Drogba there's simply too much firepower in the attack for even the best defensive club to withstand a prolonged assault. And while the talent is there for Villa to once again get back to the level of elite defensive club, they're not there at the moment. With Chelsea's back line a bit if a weak spot for this tie, Villa have an opportunity to get on the board a time or two themselves. Without Heskey or Agbonlahor, that will require either John Carew to recapture his form or Young, Albrighton and Downing to present more of a threat at goal than usual. And let's be clear; while this defense is not as high quality as the unit Chelsea usually bring to the pitch, it's superior to the majority of the competition Villa have faced to this point in the year.
This is a game Villa could find a way to steal. Chelsea are the better side by a comfortable margin even at less than full strength, but if Villa can find a way to keep them from setting up shop in the final third they have a fighting chance. It's not an especially good chance though, and to expect anything more than a draw would be foolish. Even that might be stretching it. It will be interesting to see what Gerard Houllier decides to do in terms of shape and tactics in this contest, as I think it will tell us quite a bit about his approach going forward. It's also worth paying attention to the performance of Villa from a mental standpoint. They've been somewhat prone to collapse at times this season and while things have gotten better since Houllier took charge they've yet to play a team of Chelsea's caliber. I'd like to see Villa come out of the gates looking to attack with the aims of getting on the board first. If it goes the other way early, it could get ugly quite fast. Here's to hoping that doesn't happen.