Title credentials may have been reaffirmed with Chelsea now sitting just a point behind leaders Manchester United, however a home tie against Aston Villa and a potential title decider with United lie ahead.
A comfortable 5-0 win over a lowly Portsmouth did not come without consequence – injuries to Daniel Sturridge and Didier Drogba mean they are both doubts heading into the weekend tie and Ricardo Carvalho has been ruled out for five weeks with ankle ligament damage. Branislav Ivanovic will also be out for the following four games after picking up an injury in the Blackburn draw. Chelsea therefore have a depleted back line once again as Alex and John Terry remain the two available first-team defenders. The absences of Michael Essien, Ashley Cole, Jose Bosingwa, Hilario, Petr Cech, Carvalho and Ivanovic provide a lengthy injury list. Chelsea’s depth has been tested to its fullest, and therefore will rely on their in-form strikers to provide balance to an otherwise collaborative fringe ensemble.
Drogba and Florent Malouda both bagged a brace away at Portsmouth, indicative of their form of late. Malouda tends to flourish as the season finale commences, realisation of silverware clearly a factor behind the French winger’s enhanced form. Malouda has accumulated six goals and four assists since the turn of the year and this form looks set to continue after potent form yesterday. This was however blurred by aspects of controversy as both Sturridge and Malouda were accused of leading with their arms. Ricardo Rocha and Tommy Smith felt the effects of flailing arms, with Rocha set to be out for the remainder of the season with a broken cheek bone, however referee Lee Mason said he dealt with it at the time and no further FA action will be taken.
Looking ahead, Chelsea face an Aston Villa side who have injury problems of their own, coincidentally at the opposite end of the pitch with Emile Heskey, James Milner and Gabriel Agbonlahor all ruled out or strong for the clash. The threat of John Carew’s presence may pose questions of Alex and Terry, however their combined physicality should counteract the peril of the Norwegian. Chelsea are likely to face problems on the wings with Ashley Young and Stewart Downing possessing the ability to provide dangerous deliveries for the onrushing Villa cavalry. Without Cole and Bosingwa the fitness of first team returnee Paulo Ferreira will be questioned as will the defensive capabilities of Russian Yury Zhirkov. The two sides often create open games with opposing tactics and a contradictory footballing philosophy. Chelsea tend to conjure attacks through the spine of the team, playing neat narrow football, whereas the Villans utilise the assets of their prized wingmen.
The reverse fixture earlier in the year saw Aston Villa convert two signature set-piece deliveries, with both James Collins and Richard Dunne evading Chelsea’s lackadaisical marking in the area. The same defensive frailties will be preyed upon by the Birmingham-based side this weekend, as their set-pieces are well rehearsed in the training pitch. The game will give both managers an indication of their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses ahead of their FA Cup encounter on April 10. Jose Mourinho’s analytical approach to the first leg between Chelsea and Inter certainly served his tactics well when the tape was revised a notorious seven times ahead of the second leg. Carlo Ancelotti may employ a similar approach should he fear his side may not progress in the domestic tournament, one which they must win to avoid an immensely disappointing season.
The league, however, remains top priority on Ancelotti and Abramovich’s revised list of Chelsea must-wins. The Villa game may seem a minor encounter with one eye on United and the other on the FA Cup, however a defeat here would effectively demise the title clash on the following weekend. Chelsea will demand all three points and will hope not to add further injuries to an already depleted squad list ahead of their away trip to Old Trafford. Trips to United and Liverpool provide Chelsea with a difficult month ahead and the Blues will need to amend poor away form in order to overturn their one point deficit to leaders United.