Villa looking to exorcise Chelsea demons

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Clive Rose/Getty ImagesAston Villa suffered an 8-0 hammering last season at Stamford Bridge against Chelsea.

And so, to Stamford Bridge; scene of Villa's very own footballing nightmare last season.

Less a game, more a public humiliation on a dismal December afternoon, two days before Christmas 2012 when Villa conceded eight goals to Chelsea. The rout started with a Fernando Torres opener after just three minutes and was concluded by Eden Hazard on 83. It would have been nine, were it not for Brad Guzan's penalty save from Lucas Piazon.

"We were beaten up pretty badly," admitted Villa manager Paul Lambert afterwards. Lambert couldn't offer an excuse, couldn't find a hiding place. After a result like that, where could he go? His Villa team had just conceded, on average, a goal every ten minutes. The frightening thing about it all was that the scoreline didn't flatter Chelsea. It could have been double figures, quite easily.

The immediate impact of the result was horrendous, the longer-term effect of such a heavy defeat evident over the next couple of months as a shattered young side struggled to pull themselves together. Losing 8-0 was the lowest point of the 2012-13 league campaign, and Villa have been a club in recovery ever since.

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The Villans are back at the Bridge this Wednesday, (August 21); a match the club did not want at this stage of the season and challenged, in vain, to have it rescheduled for another time. Originally, this fixture was set for August 31, but with Chelsea off on a European Super Cup jaunt the day before, it was postponed. Alternative dates were requested and duly proposed; Villa offered five but landed the one they wanted to avoid, which was Chelsea's first choice. As such, it means Villa face a second successive away fixture, in London, against one of last season's top four, while the Blues enjoy a second home game in four days. A compromise on the dates might have been fairer. Instead, Villa and Lambert have to lump it, and get on with it.

The mood in the Villa camp is certainly brighter than it may have been a week ago, when three daunting fixtures lay ahead. The first of these resulted in Saturday's 3-1 victory at Arsenal, and so while a visit to Chelsea is no less of a test because of that, at least Lambert has the satisfaction of three points safely tucked away. Regardless of what happens at Stamford Bridge, and again against Liverpool this Saturday, Villa won't head into September's international break pointless, which was a realistic scenario. Not that beating Arsenal should lull Lambert or any of his players into a false sense of security -- prior to last December's thrashing, Villa had just defeated Liverpool 3-1 at Anfield. Optimism was high.

In truth, this Villa team has come on leaps and bounds since that 8-0 shocker. Still very much a work in progress, but compare and contrast the line-up eight months ago with the one likely to take the field this time around: a back three of Chris Herd, Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker; Matt Lowton and Eric Lichaj as wing-backs; a midfield trio of Ashley Westwood, Barry Bannan and Brett Holman; Andreas Weimann and Christian Benteke up front. Stephen Ireland came on for the final half an hour. It was a team picked by a coach still evaluating the players in his squad. Back to today, and two of those men who started that match are no longer at the club, another is highly unlikely to play again for Villa, and Herd is far removed from being a starter. He'll do well to make the substitutes bench regularly.

This season, Villa are more competitive and confident, led by a coach who has settled on a framework for his team and has a firmer idea of his best X1. Defensive stability still eludes Lambert -- Baker will miss the match due to an ankle injury, sustained at the Emirates, so Clark is likely to deputise with Jores Okore short of match fitness. A possible further change may be fit again Yacouba Sylla for Karim El Ahmadi, though this match may have come just too soon for the midfielder, and El Ahmadi was tidy and combative against Arsenal.

For Villa to get any joy from this match, they must do two things very well -- press and break. Hull, beaten 2-0 by Chelsea on Sunday, didn't do either effectively enough, allowing too much space in midfield and getting forward with one or two players; Villa pressed Arsenal's midfielders quickly and robustly, and broke up the field at speed and en masse when given the chance. Villa's three forwards are all fast and direct, and should give Chelsea's defence more to think about than Hull did.

Chelsea looked ominously effective in overcoming Hull. It may have been Jose Mourinho's first Premier League match of his second spell as coach after six years away, but the performance had his stamp right the way through it, as if he'd never been away. A strong start, two early goals, the job done way before half-time, the second 45 minutes played out in second gear, the sting totally taken out of the occasion. Assured control, a trademark of Mourinho's Chelsea the first time around.

Mourinho has been at pains to point out, in recent weeks, that this is a young Chelsea team requiring patience as he seeks to build something sustainable. But it is the continued presence of established players -- Petr Cech, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry, Ashley Cole, David Luiz, Ramires, Gary Cahill, Fernando Torres and, of course, Frank Lampard -- which allows him to give the likes of Kevin De Bruyne game time. Oscar, Eden Hazard and Romelu Lukaku are no longer novices; Juan Mata couldn't even get off the bench against Hull. This squad has experience, class and depth. Chelsea will be challenging for the league title; that is all but guaranteed.

A surprise Villa victory would unquestionably put Saturday's Emirates success firmly in the shade, but given the bitter experience of last season's Stamford Bridge disaster, a competitive and passionate performance from Lambert's improving team would go some way to restoring pride. Villa's players just need to do themselves justice.

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