Besting Tottenham Hotspur was always going to be a difficult task for Aston Villa, and a robust injury list will surely make a tough task even tougher for the home side in today's League Cup third round clash at Villa Park. Christian Benteke will miss out, Gabby Agbonlahor and Ashley Westwood are listed as doubtful, and Ciaran Clark, Fabian Delph and Antonio Luna are struggling with fitness battles of their own. The luck of the draw was a big enough blow for Villa, but having to face an excellent Spurs side without six regular starters-including the two that have arguably been the team's best in Benteke and Delph-takes things to an entirely different level.
Assuming the worst, Villa will likely feature a lineup with Libor Kozak, Aleksandar Tonev Yacouba Sylla, Leandro Bacuna, Nicklas Helenius, Nathan Baker and Joe Bennett. Compared to the options Villa's had in recent seasons that's certainly not the worst situation in the world, but no team is going to be especially formidable when missing eight players (including Jores Okore and Gary Gardner) due to injury. The team Villa field against Spurs will likely be of the quality one would expect against a team playing in the Championship or below, and while Spurs will be at reduced strength thanks to this being their third game in six days, they're also drawing from a much deeper well of talent.
It's clearly a less than ideal situation for Paul Lambert, and with the deck stacked against his side to such a degree the gameplan is going to be even more important than usual. But how best to approach a game like this one? Play a pure bunker-and-counter approach and you're inviting Spurs to break down the back line time and time again. What's more, without Agbonlahor and Benteke-the engines of Villa's dangerous counter attack-it's unlikely that the counter-punch that helps to keep the opposition honest will be nearly as imposing. Kozak looked quite decent against Norwich, but he's clearly not the pacey, hold-up monster Benteke is and no one on Villa's side comes close to replicating Agbonlahor's explosiveness. But without Delph and Westwood, any attempt at playing a possession game seems doomed to failure, and attempting to pressure Spurs' midfield into mistakes seems similarly risky.
There's an optimal approach here, but it's certainly not at all easy to pin down. And what's more, even if Lambert pins down said approach and his side executes it to perfection, Villa's still going to need a great deal of luck to advance. That's not to say Villa's doomed to failure, as crazier things have happened in the League Cup-remember last year at the Etihad, for one-but it is important to keep in mind how difficult of a task this is going to be, and how impressive it would be were Villa to pull it off.
As fun as cup runs are, they're not a guarantee nor are they a right. But the best cup runs are the cup runs that feature an unlikely victory or two along the way. If Villa were to pull this one off, it'd certainly be unlikely. But with the strength of Spurs lineup still to be determined and relative unknowns likely to heavily populate Villa's team, it's really quite difficult to speculate. Far crazier things have happened.