At the end of a tiring week, the last thing Chelsea would have wanted was a match against a dynamic, improving side, but that is exactly what they will face when Aston Villa travel to Stamford Bridge on Sunday (4pm GMT, live on Sky Sports).
Chelsea had barely arrived back in England following their Club World Cup defeat to Corinthians before they were pressed into service in the Capital One Cup away to Leeds on Wednesday. In the circumstances they performed admirably, coming back from a goal down to secure a 5-1 victory and a place in the final four.
Aston Villa will, however, offer sterner opposition and it is on Sunday that any effects of tiredness are more likely to be seen. Rafael Benitez did rest Ashley Cole, Eden Hazard, Gary Cahill and Ramires against Leeds, but many others played in both the Club World Cup final and Wednesday’s match and could be forgiven for lacking a killer edge this weekend.
With both Manchester clubs winning in Chelsea’s absence, the Blues are now a massive 13 points off United at the top of the table and seven points shy of second placed City. Looking back, four clubs are gathered within two points of their current total of 29.
Benitez has overseen just one Premier League victory since replacing the sacked Roberto Di Matteo little less than a month ago, drawing twice and losing the other match away to West Ham.
Chelsea have become a much more structured team since the Spaniard took charge. There has been less interchanging of positions in the attacking midfield slots and the wide players have been more aware of their defensive duties, tracking back to help out the full backs.
Benitez has also tried to bring more width into the side in attack, employing Victor Moses on the right flank to stretch play on that side. He has prevented the team from becoming as narrow as they did at times under Di Matteo with Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar all drifting into infield areas.
Chelsea will need to quickly start reaping the rewards of these changes if they hope to stay in title contention, something that could prove difficult with away matches against in-form Norwich and Everton following the visit of Villa.
The Villains have undergone a change of approach themselves since Paul Lambert replaced the much-detested Alex McLeish in the summer. Lambert has brought greater flexibility, which saw them employ a 3-5-2 formation in last weekend’s thrilling 3-1 victory away to Liverpool.
Lambert displayed an acute tactical mind during his hugely successful three-year spell at Norwich. After a slow start he is beginning to mould Villa in the same image: dynamic, hard-working and capable of performing in numerous formations.
He has put faith in a very young side (the team that beat Liverpool had an average age of just 23 years and four months) and in doing so has found a collection of players ripe for sculpting as he sees fit. These are players willing to make the physical sacrifices required for his energy intensive style of play to function effectively.
Belgian striker Christian Benteke was the star performer against Liverpool, scoring twice to take his tally in the league to five and also providing a sumptuous back heel assist for Andreas Weimann, who swept in his third of the season. Quick, strong and spatially aware, 22-year old Benteke already looks a good piece of business at £7 million.
His strike partner Weimann was one of five academy graduates in the starting eleven, a number that included the sum of the three-man central defensive unit who performed so adeptly in face of Liverpool’s numerous attacks.
They are supplemented by Brad Guzan and Eric Lichaj, Americans brought in four years ago, and young signings like Benteke, Ashley Westwood and Matthew Lowton. The one experienced head is free transfer signing Brett Holman. Together they form the nucleus of an improving Villa side in the midst of a five-match unbeaten run.
Despite receiving numerous plaudits in the wake of the victory at Anfield, Lambert will be aware that his side are still just three points above the relegation places. They must maintain their upward momentum through a difficult Christmas period to ensure they can look up rather than down when the dust settles in the New Year.
Chelsea v Aston Villa Betting Tips
The more structured shape that Benitez has brought to Chelsea is designed to make them less susceptible to the counter attack than under Di Matteo. That should be of great help against a Villa side who have displayed an ability to move quickly and incisively from back to front this season.
With Chelsea unlikely to be firing on all cylinders due to accumulated fatigue from their recent travels this will probably be a fairly stodgy match. Although Chelsea are favourites to emerge victorious we do not believe they are likely to do so by any more than a goal.