With just 15 games remaining and Aston Villa slipping dangerously close to the bottom three, it's clear that the results need to start coming soon if the club are to avoid another prolonged relegation battle. It's unfortunate, then, that what certainly looked like an uptick in both quality and form coincided with such a brutal stretch of games; a hard-fought loss against Liverpool was followed by an absolute hammering at the hands of Arsenal, and now league-leaders Chelsea will come to Villa Park with an eye on adding a bit of padding to their goal difference.
It really is a shame for Villa, as the mood among the fans seemed to be taking a turn towards the positive following a solid effort against Liverpool and a convincing FA Cup win over a good Bournemouth side. It's yet to be seen how much of that goodwill has been squandered thanks to last week's pasting at the Emirates, but if the past is any indication the answer will be a "a lot of it." The home fans' frustration has been (understandably) constant this season, and the manner in which Villa so completely failed to build on the progress they appeared to be making certainly won't help matters.
While it would certainly be somewhat understandable for the Villa Park crowd to be less than thrilled with the team come kickoff, the home side will need all the support they can get if they have any hope of picking up a result against Chelsea. The Blues haven't quite wrapped up the title just yet, but they've got a very comfortable cushion as we head into the stretch run of the season. There's not much secret to Chelsea's success; they've scored more goals that any team in the league and allowed fewer than all but Southampton. They don't always batter the opposition, but it's very rare that they are not in complete and total control of any given game at any given time.
They're also on a slight down-tick (in the most purely relative sense possible) and Jose Mourinho doesn't seem especially happy about it. The Special One hasn't been his typical, cheerful self these past few weeks and he's made it clear in the not-so-distant past that he sees a lack of a killer instinct in his current Chelsea squad. If I were managing a team I felt was in danger of letting the league title slip I'd certainly go with an aggressive gameplan against a team like Villa, and I'm nowhere near as ruthless as Mourinho. If Chelsea come out gunning and Villa can't whether the storm, things could get very ugly very quickly.
The realistic hope from a game such as this is simply to avoid embarrassment. The seas get quite a bit calmer after this game, and if Villa can put in a performance they can build on against the league leaders-even if it comes in a loss-they're going to be much more confident going into a stretch of three winnable games. This is a team with plenty of talent, but they're dearly lacking in self-belief at the moment, and it shows. It's all well and good to demand results, but the odds of Villa getting one against Chelsea are slim-to-none; it's about getting results against the likes of Hull, Leicester, and Stoke, and that's going to be much easier if the team leave the Villa Park pitch feeling good about themselves this afternoon.
If they can't, the risk that things could snowball goes up exponentially. We've seen it before, and Villa have always managed to pull out of their tailspin just in time. Eventually, there's a good chance that luck is going to run out, and with so little separation at the bottom right now, this very well could be the year. I don't know whether or not Paul Lambert is capable of saying or doing anything that's going to get his club in a state to give Chelsea a challenge. But if he wants to see his project come to a positive conclusion, he'd damn well better try.