In a lot of ways it's almost a shame this match has to be played. Despite the disappointing finish the feelings coming out of the Manchester United game were almost universally positive and once kickoff comes tomorrow morning there's a chance that comes to an end. Because while the Littlest Villans showed that they are capable of playing with one of the best teams in the world, it was only ten days ago that a near identical lineup barely escaped with a home win over Blackpool's reserve team. The biggest problem with relying on youth is that kids are generally inconsistent by nature, especially those that have only recently been inserted into the starting XI. As brilliant as Barry Bannan (just for the sake of an example) has been in his short time as a regular, the odds of his having a sub-par game are quite simply higher than the odds of Nigel Reo-Coker having a sub-par game. Understand that I am not in any way advocating that the youth movement be halted (were that even a possibility.) It is absolutely quite the opposite; I am more than willing to accept the risk inherent in playing the kids because the potential reward is well worth it. But it has to be acknowledged that it's unreasonable to feel completely confident in their ability to play as well as they did last week on a consistent basis.
Complicating matters for Villa is their continuing injury crisis. I would say this things are getting ridiculous, but that would be a lie. Things got ridiculous quite some time ago, then it was kind of funny and now it's more surreal than anything. In addition to the longer-term injuries to Emile Heskey, John Carew, Stiliyan Petrov, Nigel Reo-Coker and Steve Sidwell comes news that James Collins and Carlos Cuellar will both likely be out of the squad tomorrow. Richard Dunne and Ciaran Clark are both injured as well and under different circumstances probably wouldn't be called on to start, but what else can Gerard Houllier do? Start Shane Lowry and Eric Lichaj in the center? There's really no other option but to start the still injured pair, and that makes Villa vulnerable at the back. Things should be about the same elsewhere for Villa to what we saw last week. If there is a change made I'd guess it would be Johnathan Hogg making way for Robert Pires or Stephen Ireland. That seems like a bit of a long-shot seeing as how Pires has been with Villa for three days and Houllier seems to regard Ireland about as highly as that unpleasant brown substance on the bottom of his shoe. Still, given the manager's desire to play something other than a 4-4-2 and Villa's inability to play anything else with Hogg in the lineup and it must be considered a possibility.
Blackburn have some injury concerns of their own, with Benjani being their most high-profile casualty. El-Hadji Diouf and David Dunn appear set to return to action for Blackburn however, which should give Rovers a bit of a boost. Blackburn's style of play is well known at this point; physical and direct. Coming into the weekend Rovers had committed more fouls (190) than any team in the Premier League. They play a fairly traditional English style but to their credit it plays to their strengths and they do it well. Blackburn aren't the most beautiful team to watch but they're not boring or negative either; Sam Allardyce, for all of his faults, knows how to use his squad in the most effective manner possible, and Rovers approach could cause some problems for Villa. It's tough to counter-attack when your opponents are sitting back and waiting for you to come to them, and if Villa are forced into attacking from possession Blackburn's big, physical defenders (most notably captain Christopher Samba) could create some serious problems for Villa's quick but undersized attacking players.
Fortunately for Villa Blackburn's attacking players have similar matchup problems against Villa's back line. Richard Dunne's fitness is a concern, but even at 80% the big man should be able to give El Hadji Diouf a lot of trouble. Blackburn's attackers aren't poor, but as a unit they are decidedly average and nothing Villa can't be epected to deal with. The biggest concern for Villa will almost certainly be whether they can prevent Blackburn from getting forward in great number on the counter. Villa are used to playing in their own end and looking for a quick strike, but look for them to do so to an even greater degree tomorrow.
In all honesty, this one has the potential to be a bit of a snoozer. Two teams that look to counter, one in Blackburn that have reasons to play more conservatively than usual due to the opposition's and the other in Villa playing away from home with a young squad and two injured center backs. The wild card here is that Gerard Houllier has to know that at some point Villa need to start winning games, and Blackburn are a team that Villa are talented enough to beat. If this season is being viewed as one in which the development of the younger players is of paramount importance, perhaps taking a risk and playing more aggressively than would be expected is a risk Houllier is willing to take. This game also gives us an opportunity to see how the squad are able to bounce back from the severe disappointment they were reported as having in themselves after allowing Manchester United to draw level. Will they come out sharper and hungrier, determined not to give Blackburn a chance at all? Or did it negatively impact their confidence in such a way that they abandon some of the fearlessness we've seen at times for a more timid style?
That's one of the fun things about a season like this. Can you honestly imagine being excited about Blackburn-Villa at this point in the season under any other circumstances? But in the experiment that is Aston Villa's 2010-11 season there's always a reason to watch. Maybe this is the week Johnathan Hogg shakes off the nerves and puts himself into the same class as some of the other youngsters, or Villa take early control of the game and actually start converting their chances, or the Stephen Ireland we epected all along finally shows up. Maybe we learn something about the kids we didn't really want to know but are better having found out. But the chances are good that something worth talking about will happen, and that's pretty much all you can ask for.