It's difficult to envision a better start to the season for Aston Villa, with a scrappy performance providing just enough in the way of chances to emerge from the Emirates with three points. Given that a point and a respectable goal difference would have been a respectable outcome from Villa's first three games, the month of August is already a pretty solid one. But given what happened the last time the last time Villa traveled to Stamford Bridge to face Chelsea on short rest after an improbable victory away from home, it's important to keep in mind exactly how cruel this game can be.
Chelsea's first outing of the season was a comfortable 2-0 victory over Hull City Tigers, a solid start for the new Jose Mourinho era. The scoreline was if anything flattering to the visitors, with Chelsea being unsurprisingly the more threatening side throughout. Given a relatively decent showing last season in spite of Rafa Benitez being, well, Rafa Benitez coupled with the return of the Special One to the Stamford Bridge touchline the Blues have emerged as a trendy favorite to win the league, and it's difficult to argue with the thought process. Despite a somewhat disappointing spell at Real Madrd Mourinho is still rightly regarded as one of the world's best managers, and although the summer transfer window has been relatively quiet by Chelsea standards the club still boasts one of the more impressive collections of talent that can be found anywhere in the world.
Chelsea's pretty good, is the point that I'm trying to make. Certainly better than Arsenal, and even more certainly better, deeper and more well equipped to deal with the mid-week fixture than Villa. There's no team Villa could put out that's good enough to match talent-wise with the worst side of senior players Chelsea could put out, and this being a road match on short rest, expectations should be reasonable. A decent performance should be the expectation, a point would be further cause for optimism, and a win would be a very wonderful excuse to get school-night-drunk and make some questionable decisions.
The path to those questionable decisions is likely the same that it was against Arsenal; play a very high-pressure game in the midfield, don't shy away from physical play (but preferably do a bit better job of picking spots and avoiding fouls and bookings) and take advantage of opportunities on the counter. After spending the first half or so of last season looking for an identity, Villa's found one; this isn't a bunker-and-counter, kick-and-rush team, but their best opportunities are clearly going to come on the break. The difference is that those opportunities are going to be generated by tireless harassment in midfield rather than hit-and-hope balls from the back.
But it's a style that carries with it a great deal of risk without proper execution, and Chelsea is the kind of team that can severely punish the mistakes that tend to follow this approach. Arsenal had their openings on Saturday, but they were unable to take advantage of them; it would be foolish to expect a repeat of that today. There's more than a slight chance that Paul Lambert is aware of this fact, and will adjust the approach to this game. And if it ends up earning Villa a point, it would be difficult to argue with such an approach.
But there's a nagging voice that keeps telling me it just wants Villa to go for it. Throw out the same lineup that won at Arsenal, go with the same aggressive approach, and damn the consequences. It's early,after all, Villa managed to bounce back from the worst case scenario last season, and there's every reason to think they would be ab;e to put in a stronger effort this time around. So long as things don't get out of hand a loss isn't really a serious concern in this game, and the upside of securing a point or even three is pretty enormous.
That's likely early season hubris speaking. Spirits are high, the relegation battle seems like an abstract concept, and this specific incarnation of Aston Villa hasn't yet been pummeled in embarrassing fashion. Lambert could play a 5-5-0, and if he earned a point I'd be thrilled. But if Villa goes for it, and they end up losing-even in a lopsided fashion-I doubt I'll be too disappointed. If now isn't the time to dream, when is?