Speculate all you want, but Tim Sherwood remains the manager of Aston Villa -- for now. Eight matches in, the Villans languish in 18th place in the Premier League with four points. Their opponents this Saturday, Chelsea, aren't much better off, just two spots ahead in the standings. But the Blues have twice as many points, and a squad that surely will start to rectify the poor start.
It's harder to say the same about Villa. Sure, the squad was overhauled this summer. The cause for concern is because it doesn't seem that they've gelled as a unit yet, and Sherwood admits he doesn't know his best eleven. Last match, a 1-0 defeat to Stoke City, Jack Grealish and Carles Gil didn't crack the starting lineup, but showed attacking intent when brought on. They are the main creators in this team, and need to be in from the beginning.
We won't see the same lineup -- that horrific rendition of a five-at-the-back system -- that was used against the Potters. Even if Tactics Tim somehow decided he liked it, his hand will be forced with Ciaran Clark ruled out due to a hip/thigh problem.
One thing Aston Villa have lacked is the presence of a leader on the pitch. Micah Richards has done a solid job captaining the squad from his position in central defence, but there's a lot left to be desired in every area of the pitch. Someone like Scott Sinclair needs to step up. I'd throw Idrissa Gana in the fire here, but his injury problems have really limited the impact he's been able to make so far.
Luckily Chelsea have some injury issues of their own. Branislav Ivanović will miss the match, and sounds like Jose Mourinho prefers Kurt Zouma to Abdul Baba Rahman. Thibout Courtois is out too, but Asmir Begović is a more-than-capable backup.
For the Blues, the issue hasn't been scoring goals, but rather preventing them. They've shipped 17, joint second-worst in England's top flight. An ageing John Terry may be partially to blame, but foolish mistakes have been made by everyone. Cesc Fábregas has been guilty of failing to track back on a few occasions this term.
Chelsea are outshooting their opponents by almost two full shots per game (15.6-13.8). Additionally, in every match they've lost, Chelsea have trailed at half time. Maybe that recipe works for other teams, but Villa have developed a notorious reputation for conceding late. The Claret and Blues are being outscored 9-5 in the second half of games this season.
Anyways, time for the real question. Who starts this match for Villa? With Clark out, Joleon Lescott most likely pairs Richards, and I think Alan Hutton gets the nod at right back. It will be a tricky matchup for the Scot against Eden Hazard.
While he may not have the necessary strength to play there, I think it's a good idea to go with Gil in midfield. With Gana and Ashley Westwood behind him there's a bit of protection, and more importantly, it allows for two scoring threats to be played in attack, since Rudy Gestede seems unlikely to score with the way this team struggles to create chances.
On the left Jack Grealish needs to start. Sherwood will go with Gestede centrally, leaving the choice on the right either Scott Sinclair or Adama Traoré. The former Barcelona man Traoré has been a brilliant super sub, so let's go with Sinclair.
Mourinho will have his team line up in a 4-2-3-1, although he may not ask his wingers to track back as much as usual. Since Chelsea's defence has been suspect, he may decide the best way to win is through attack rather than defence. Up top, Diego Costa will be difficult to deal with for the Villa backline. Most importantly, they must not fall for any of his tricks or get wound up by his antics and sent off.
Pedro and Willian are both very dangerous attackers that could be deployed on the right side, and Jordan Amavi needs to focus on his defensive responsibilities more than ever before worrying about getting forward. Oscar will test the central pairing of Gana and Westwood, and that's where this contest may be won, especially with the backing of Nemanja Matić and Fábregas.
If Villa can keep it tight at the back and concede fewer than two goals, they stand a chance. Even a point here is a good result, but Sherwood must start righting the ship soon, even if it's a ridiculously difficult stretch of matches the club is trying to navigate.
Asmir Begović; Cesar Azpilicueta, John Terry, Gary Cahill, Kurt Zouma; Cesc Fábregas, Nemanja Matić; Willian, Oscar, Eden Hazard; Diego Costa.
Aston Villa (4-3-3):
Brad Guzan; Alan Hutton, Micah Richards, Joleon Lescott, Jordan Amavi; Ashley Westwood, Idrissa Gana Gueye, Carles Gil; Jack Grealish, Rudy Gestede, Scott Sinclair.
Who absolutely has to step up in this match for Villa to get a result? What lineup would you go with? Let us know in the comments!
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