The late kick-off on Saturday is an intriguing prospect as league leaders Chelsea head to one of their least favourite grounds—Villa Park. Despite their success over the past decade, Chelsea have only won once at Villa Park in the past 11 years. That success was two years ago in Guus Hiddink’s first match in charge of Chelsea.
Indeed, last season, Villa came from behind to secure a 2-1 victory to inflict Chelsea’s second defeat of the season. However, in the return fixture, Chelsea secured arguably their most impressive result of the season as they scored seven against a Villa side battling hard for a Champions League place, before beating them 3-0 in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley.
Villa Park is a difficult place for teams to go, with Villa only having lost 3 of their past 22 games there. Those games were on the opening day of last season against Wigan, a match in December against Liverpool, where both sides struggled to play in blizzard conditions, and against Blackburn on the closing day of last season. They remain unbeaten at home thus far this season with seven points from a possible nine after wins against West Ham and Everton, and a draw with Bolton.
However, Villa Park has been a difficult ground for Chelsea to go to, with only one win since 1999. Since then, Villa have won four times, Chelsea once, and there have been six draws. Indeed, Villa Park was the only Premier League ground that Jose Mourinho never tasted success at.
Chelsea have started the season well with six wins from their first seven matches. They have also only lost twice in their past nine away games, scoring 22 goals and conceding only six in that period.
This season, they have scored a stunning 23 goals, seven more than their nearest rivals, and conceded only two.
Last season, goals from Richard Dunne and James Collins gave Villa the win after Didier Drogba had given Chelsea an early lead. However, Chelsea gained their revenge in the spring when five second half goals gave them a spectacular 7-1 victory, which they followed up with a 3-0 victory at Wembley in the FA Cup semi-final.
Aston Villa have an almost full-strength team for this match, with only Gabby Agbonlahor and long-term absentee Fabian Delph missing. They are boosted by Emile Heskey, Ashley Young and Marc Albrighton passing late fitness tests on Friday morning.
Brad Friedel will start in goal behind a likely defence of Luke Young, Stephen Warnock, James Collins and Richard Dunne, although Carlos Cuellar may possibly replace the out-of-form Richard Dunne. Personally, I'd prefer to see Cuellar start as his excellent reading of the game could prove crucial in an attempt to counter the pace of Nicholas Anelka. Cuellar has been excellent in his few starts so far this season. Richard Dune provides more of a physical presence, but in the absence of Drogba, this is less crucial for the match.
Houllier is likely to set up with a midfield pair of Stiliyan Petrov and Nigel Reo-Coker, with Stewart Downing and Marc Albrighton on the wings. Emile Heskey will start up front having been passed as fit, with Ashley Young lurking just behind him.
However, I personally feel that Marc Albrighton may struggle against Ashley Cole, who is undoubtedly one of the best left backs in world football. He loves to run and go past players, although whether he is good enough against a player of Cole's quality is debatable.
The other issue could be Chelsea's midfield trio overrunning Petrov and Reo-Coker in the centre of the pitch, particularly as the game progresses. This would give them a solid base in the centre to break up Villa's play and set up their own attacks.
Instead, I would rather see a midfield trio of Petrov, Reo-Coker and Stephen Ireland, with Ashley Young and Stewart Downing on the wings. With Petrov and Reo-Coker playing in a slightly deeper role, they would be able to match up to Ramires and Essien man-to-man, whilst Stephen Ireland would play in a more advanced role, supporting Emile Heskey, whilst also playing and marking Jon Obi Mikel when he has the ball for Chelsea.
Mikel has become a key part of making Chelsea tick - indeed, he has made more successful passes than any other player in the Premiership this season - and by not allowing him the time to play, it will help disrupt the Chelsea build-up.
On the wings, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing have plenty of experience, and they tend to repeatedly swap wings during the game. I feel that it would also be beneficial for Downing to spend more time on the right wing, up against Ashley Cole, since he looks to get the ball into the box early, rather than trying to pass to the full back.
On the other flank, Ashley Young is Villa's key player, and he may enjoy playing against the slightly weaker Paulo Ferreira.
Emile Heskey has been a player reborn since Gerard Houllier arrived at the club, and he will look to continue his excellent form. However, he will be in a real battle against Ivanovic and Terry, although if he plays as he has done in recent weeks, he could bully the two of them, leaving space for Young, Downing and Ireland to make the most of their opportunities.
Chelsea have a mounting injury list, although will be boosted by the return of captain John Terry for this match. Carlo Ancelotti has already announced the starting eleven for the match. Petr Cech will start in goal as expected behind a back four of Paulo Ferreira, Branislav Ivanovic, John Terry and Ashley Cole.
In midfield, the trio of Ramires, Jon Obi Mikel and Michael Essien continue, and Gael Kakuta and Florent Malouda will support the lone front-man Nicholas Anelka.
The list of players that miss out for Chelsea include the likes of Didier Drogba, Frank Lampard, Alex, Yossi Benayoun, Salomon Kalou and Daniel Sturridge. Even without them, it is a fairly strong line-up, and Chelsea will go to Villa Park with high hopes of taking all three points.
The defence in particular, looks solid and is set to be boosted by Jose Bosingwa's potential return to the bench. Terry and Ivanovic is a solid and physical partnership, who will be relatively confident of coping with the physical threat of Emile Heskey, whilst Ashley Cole is a top player.
The potential weak link could be Paulo Ferreira, although calling a multiple league winner and Champions League winner a weak link shows the strength of the backline.
The midfield trio of Essien, Ramires and Mikel is very strong. Michael Essien is back to top form after a season disrupted by injury last year, whilst Jon Obi Mikel is rapidly becoming an integral part of the Chelsea side. Ramires is still settling since his summer move from Brazil, and if Villa can get at him and pressure him early on, he showed against Manchester City that he can be vulnerable.
Without Lampard and Drogba, Florent Malouda will be key for Chelsea, and thus far, he has been in outstanding form this season. If he plays up against Stephen Warnock, he may find plenty of joy, since the Villa left-back has been in questionable form this season, and struggled up against Wolves' Matt Jarvis earlier in the season. If he does find space to play, he has the potential to rip teams to shreds.
Gael Kakuta is the unknown here. He has great potential, but whether he is ready to start in the Premiership against an established top-half team is still to be seen.
Nicholas Anelka starts on his own up front, and Chelsea will be looking to make the most of his pace against Dunne and Collins, neither of whom are the quickest. He has been in decent form thus far, and Chelsea will be relying on him to get the goals to give them all three points tomorrow.
It has the potential to be an intriguing match.
The return of John Terry is a huge boost for Chelsea, as Paulo Ferreira would likely have played in the centre of the defence otherwise, and he may have struggled against Heskey. However, without Lampard and Drogba, Chelsea will be very reliant on Anelka, and in particular, Malouda to create and score the goals, and if Villa can manage to negate those threats, they may have a chance to pull off an upset.
PREDICTION: Aston Villa 1 - 1 Chelsea