Chelsea players have endured one of the toughest experiences in modern day football when they travelled half way round the world, to play in the Club World Cup, only to stumble at the final step and come back empty handed.
With almost no rest after landing in England, a Capital One Cup fixture away to rivals Leeds United demanded every last ounce of energy the players had in them. Though, the 5-1 score-line reflects a walk in the park, it was not that easy a task for Benitez’s team. Now they face Aston Villa at home which marks the start of the festive fixtures; 3 games in a week.
The Club World Cup was a story to forget for the players, as they had a great semifinal, but a dismal performance in the final against Corinthians, left them with only a silver medal. Post Di Matteo’s sacking, the team has appeared broken, with no clear responsible leader on the pitch.
The mistakes from the Di Matteo era came back to haunt the team, as they were time and again appearing shaky to fast counters by opponents. The only person who will take any sort of positives out of the trip to Japan would be Rafa Benitez. Far from media attention and pressure, he got ample time to know the team he inherited and work on the tactical tweaks.
One such noticeable tweak was David Luiz in midfield. Chelsea fans were craving to see the Brazilian in a defensive midfield role and they had their wish fulfilled. Luiz enjoyed himself in the new role and had put in an impressive performance. The final though was a different story.
Fernando Torres continued to find the net, but was still slow out of the blocks. The only thing Benitez will be hoping to achieve by the New Year will be, consistency. In his 8 match stint, he had 4 wins, 2 draws and 2 losses. The league cup fixture proved to be an important one, considering the rivalry Leeds and Chelsea developed over the past 40 years, and it was a chance to get closer to any sort of silverware.
With many personnel either suspended or injured, Benitez had to play Lampard and Oscar in the midfield against Leeds, a relatively light and fragile pairing. There were consequences, as both were caught high up very often, exposing the defense to direct attacks. A mistake from Luiz and inexperience of the midfield cost Chelsea a goal running into halftime.
The second half was a bright chapter, as Juan Mata came to life and played around the players of the Championship outfit. A further infusion of talent in the form of Hazard from the bench made matters worse for Neil Warnock’s team. A question was asked about the character of the players during the halftime, and the players responded with a resounding 5 goals in the second half.
With that concluding the list of events on the Chelsea calendar, let us move on to the game on Sunday at Stamford Bridge. Chelsea face Aston Villa at home, the former’s 7th fixture of the month. Last season, this fixture came in almost the same set of Christmas fixtures and Chelsea were left licking their wounds as Bent and Co. went home with 3 points.
This season Paul Lambert’s men have had a mixed set of results, but they are now on a 6-match unbeaten run, with wins against Norwich, Liverpool and Reading. A tight encounter can be expected at the bridge when the two teams meet.
Chelsea have a number of absentees, the most important being John Terry. The iconic captain had a setback on his knee injury and is now expected to return in the first week of January. John Obi Mikel is serving his three match suspension and Daniel Sturridge is still doubtful for the match. Oriol Romeu is out for a long term and we might see him on the pitch only in the next season. Ramires is back into the lineup after serving his one match suspension.
Aston Villa too is injury hit, with Richard Dunne and Darren Bent out for a long time, Ron Vlaar suffering with minor niggles and Agbonlahor too doubtful for today’s clash. Inspite of the absentee list, Lambert has found the winning mantra for his team, much is credited to the way Benteke is playing. Agbonlahor, who has a good record against big clubs, is expected to return to the lineup.
Chelsea: Cech – Azpilicueta, Ivanovic, Cahill,Cole – Luiz, Ramires – Moses, Mata, Hazard – Torres
Aston Villa: Guzan – Herd, Clark, Baker – Lowton, Holman, Westwood, Bannan, Lichaj – Benteke, Weimann
Aston Villa have been playing a 3-5-2 formation since Vlaar got injured. Clark, Baker and Herd forming a very young back line. Benteke and Weimann have developed a good partnership up front as they complement each other using their abilities to the maximum.
Benteke is powerful in the air and Weimann is the one making those runs behind defenses. The duo successfully carved open the Liverpool defense and won the match with a convincing 3-1. The midfield is still getting used to the new formation, but Bannan, Westwood and Holman pose a considerable threat with their intelligent play. Lichaj and Lowton play the wing back role on the either side of the midfield.
Chelsea will line up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation. Due to the lack of midfielders, David Luiz might play beside Ramires or Lampard in defensive mid. Oscar might be benched, with Moses getting a start on the wings along with Hazard and Mata supplying Torres upfront. Ashley Cole returns to the lineup after being sidelined for 2 weeks. With two contrasting formations on display, it portrays a situation similar to the match against Juventus. But obviously, there is a titanic difference in the quality of the players of Juventus and Aston Villa.
The main concern for Benitez will be the two Villa strikers. A 2v2 situation could prove damaging, if Benteke finds his groove. So David Luiz will most likely play deep just ahead of the two centre-backs and will be told to mark Benteke or Weimann. The story on the other side presents a completely different proposition as Torres will be up against 3 defenders, a 3v1 situation.
With the attacking band of Mata and Co. descending onto the Villa back 3, the wing-backs will be forced to drop and form a 5-man defense. The key player will be the one playing beside Luiz in midfield, be it Lampard or Ramires. It will be a game in which the wings get cancelled out and midfield dominance plays a major role in the outcome.