This will be the third time this fixture has been contested so far this season (and we get one more in a month) with the two sides splitting the results so far; Villa prevailing 3-1 at home in the Carling Cup and Blackburn taking the home end of the Premier League contests 2-0. It must be said that while the personnel is largely the same, Steve Kean has replaced Sam Allardyce as manager. Blackburn aren't exactly playing exciting football these days but they're slightly (emphasis on the slightly) more entertaining these days, though they're still the most physical team in the Premier League by quite some margin. How Villa deal with that is likely to determine the outcome of this one; it's difficult looking at the squad sheets to find any real predictive value in the first match, but the second was largely a matter of Blackburn beating up on Villa for 90 minutes and finding goals from set pieces.
This isn't exactly the same Villa we saw in the league game against Blackburn either; the 2-0 loss was the first in a string of four consecutive defeats and a longer stretch which saw them take five points from an available eighteen in league games. Though Darren Bent and (most likely) Jean Makoun will be unavailable, but the Blackburn game came on the heels of consecutive games in which Villa dropped points from winning positions and the lack of confidence was evident from the outset. The Villa we've seen these past few games looks sharper at the back, more dangerous in attack and orders of magnitude more confident. There's still a ways to go, but the circumstances surrounding the last fixture contested by these two sides were about as different from the circumstances surrounding this one as possible.
Blackburn are coming off of a fairly convincing 2-0 win over West Bromwich Albion, but their form as of late has been uneven. A thumping from Sunderland was followed by a thumping of Liverpool, which was followed by Rovers just barely squeaking by Queen's Park Rangers to arrive at the 4th round of the FA Cup. The West Brom victory was preceded by a spanking at the hands of Chelsea. The reality of Blackburn is that they have no real dangerous scorers (in terms of the run of play at least) or visionary playmakers; they beat up on the opposition's attacking players and thump the ball downfield, counting on set-pieces and the occasional counter to bring them goals. It's never going to get them to the Champions League but it's been good enough to put them five spots ahead of Villa on the table to this point. They're the kind of team you don't expect to lose to that manages to somehow knock off one of the big boys every once in while and also manages to lose to Manchester United 7-1.
The key then will be to set the pace early on. Villa clearly have thee advantage in terms of speed and ball movement and it's tough to knock someone down if they've just run past you. Blackburn have trouble crawling back into games because they're generally unconcerned with trying to attack in any traditional sense; early goals are always a boon, but against a team like Blackburn they're a Godsend. The longer Rovers stay in it though, the more likely it is that their pace of play has been established and Villa's attacking players are being beaten up. This is, basically, the team Emile Heskey exists to play against; he's big, stronger than pretty much anyone in the league and has the vision necessary to find Villa's more dangerous scorers in dangerous positions and he's the only striker available for the game that makes corners a threat. A lot of people have forgotten about big Emile since Darren Bent arrived but he carried Villa during the early part of the season and it was his injury that most directly coincided with the beginning of the club's tailspin. He's not one of the two best forwards on the squad in terms of overall ability but he's a safety valve of sorts and I'd fully expect to him up front and leading the line tomorrow.
There's been some talk of supporters not being especially concerned with an early exit so as to focus on getting back into the top half of the table, but I think there's serious danger in losing this game. For the first time all year it looks like the team has a belief in their ability to win, and if they're dealt a blow to their confidence heading into Tuesday's venture into Old Trafford it could lead to a spanking that could in turn lead to another extended run of poor form. There's also the fact that winning the FA Cup is likely the only way Villa have a shot at Europe this season and while that's not important to everyone it's something I'd love to see and something that I think would be good for the squad, especially given their relative youth and inexperience. That's not to say that Villa should start their best XI and pour everything into this match, but the FA Cup is an important competition and I'd far prefer the good feelings to keep rolling as long as possible.
This isn't a complex matchup. Villa will most likely field the more talented side and have played well at home this season, but Blackburn are a real threat to knock them out of the Cup simply because of their style and personnel. In addition you're likely to see a few younger and more seldom used players in the XI (or least get a look late on) and while they could surprise with exceptionally strong performances they could also put in complete and total disasters. It's a game Villa should win, but it's also one that sets up for disappointment on many fronts. The past few weeks we've seen Villa let the opponent come to them and establish the pace of the play and it's worked, but that can't happen in this game. I'd imagine Houllier realizes that and I'd expect to see a pretty aggressive (possibly even direct, especially if Heskey gets the start) attacking style early on. If that's what happens and it's successful, this could be a breeze. If not, it could get ugly and if it does let's hope there's no hangover.