Chelsea must beware Aston Villa's pacy strike force

Posted by Phil Lythell

Jose Mourinho's return to the Chelsea dugout on Sunday saw an outpouring of love and affection that was almost unprecedented at Stamford Bridge. The reaction was the diametric opposite to the vitriol showered upon his predecessor, and with the initial flirtations enacted prior to kickoff, the fans and manager then moved fully immersed into a honeymoon period that threatens to outlast any that any football boss has ever enjoyed.

But while the fans might still be swooning at the presence of the Portuguese maestro, the man himself is keen to focus the minds of his players -- and any supporters who are able to extricate themselves from their reverie -- upon the job in hand. Beating Hull City, however impressive parts of the performance were, was like taking candy from a baby. The next visitors to West London will not be so charitable.

That might seem a strange thing to say about a side that found itself on the wrong end of an 8-0 drubbing on its last trip to Stamford Bridge, though those expecting history to repeat itself need only cast their mind backs to Saturday and Aston Villa's shock 3-1 win at Arsenal. Although much of the postmatch reaction has been trained on the Gunners' deficiencies, the victory was also the product of a hardworking team that has shown itself capable of widening any cracks that appear in its opponents' displays.

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On Sunday, Chelsea were able to almost dispense with their own back four entirely, so dominant were they in possession. The match devolved into an elongated reprise of an attack-versus-defence training drill as the Tigers were forced to repel wave after wave of attack with no outlet to relieve the pressure. That will not be the case against Villa.

In Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann, the Birmingham club boasts two forwards capable of counterattacking at blistering pace before feeding it to Christian Benteke, a striker who has quickly become one of the most feared marksmen in the Premier League. Since Villa's mauling by Chelsea in December, Paul Lambert has been able to develop his young side and mould it slowly toward the image of the team that he sees in his mind’s eye. The win at the Emirates announced to the rest of the division that Villa will not be pushovers this season.

With such leaps having been made by the Villans, Mourinho will have been the first to warn his players of complacency. The manager will not have gotten carried away by his team's display against Hull, one that started with explosive pace and dizzying movement but that dwindled into an almost prosaic march to the final whistle. Fatigue from international exertions was cited as a potential cause for the drop-off in performance, so it can be expected that some changes to the starting 11 will be made.

Juan Mata will be hoping to get his first outing of the campaign, having remained as an unused substitute last weekend. The manager is likely to utilise the Spaniard to hasten his return to match fitness as well as for his match-winning ability. Compatriot Cesar Azpilicueta could also be deployed, with his pace as a useful defence against Villa's speedy attacking trio and his legs now recovered from an arduous midweek trip to Ecuador.

Up front, it would be a surprise if Romelu Lukaku was not afforded a start following his encouraging preseason and Fernando Torres' staccato display on Sunday. A battle between Belgium's two leading strikers would provide an intriguing subplot to the match.

Mourinho's prematch news conference suggested that Frank Lampard might find himself on the bench, though that is more with a view to saving the 35-year-old's legs for the season's first big test against Manchester United on Monday than anything more sinister. The technical staff has a fine balancing act to undertake. There is a need to field a competitive, winning team that can also supply the staff with more information about the suitability of certain players in certain systems, though that is counteracted by the necessity of having the squad's big performers all fit and firing for the showdown at Old Trafford.

However, the main objective must be about attaining three points on Wednesday night against Aston Villa. The squad is now brimming with options in almost every position, so nursing players to perfect health should play second fiddle to the most important element of any successful side, namely for it to be indelibly imbued with a winning mentality.

Victory is the only language that Mourinho understands. He will expect his players to be that bit more fluent once they walk off the pitch on Wednesday night.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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