Chelsea v Aston Villa preview
The mood around Stamford Bridge was lighter this morning after a positive performance against Leeds United in the Carling Cup and for once Rafa Benitez was feeling a semblance of love from the faithful.
With a home fixture against Aston Villa on Sunday expectations are high that a run of victories over the holiday period could push the Blues back into Champions League contention which is a far cry from the disillusionment felt after Chelsea's trip to the FIFA Club World Cup in Japan ended sourly with defeat to Corinthians in the final. It is clear after the Elland Road victory that Rafael Benitez's men have found themselves after going 1-0 down at half-time in their quarter-final against Leeds.
Chelsea were up against it initially at Elland Road but proved their class in a dominant second-half performance as goals from Juan Mata, Branislav Ivanovic, Victor Moses, Eden Hazard and Fernando Torres gave them a 5-1 win.
The scoreline may have flattered Chelsea somewhat but their fight-back – triggered by excellent performances from Frank Lampard and Victor Moses – was most impressive.
Chelsea have now won four of their last five and will be confident ahead of Sunday's fixture at Stamford Bridge.
Aston Villa climbed to 14th on the table after a terrific 3-1 away win at Liverpool last week and the signs are that Paul Lambert's side are finally clicking after a slow start to the campaign.
Villa are unbeaten in six matches now and have only lost to Manchester City and Manchester United in their last 11. Optimism is slowly returning to Villa Park after a disastrous season that saw Alex McLeish almost take the club to the brink of relegation before getting sacked at the end of the season.
There is barely a whiff of that relegation form this time around, as Lambert's patience with the club's younger players starts to pay off.
The prime example of that is Belgian forward Christian Benteke, who has scored three goals in his last two matches for the club.
The 22-year-old – signed from Genk in August – made a less than inspiring start to life at Villa Park but was simply outstanding at Anfield last week, scoring a double which took his tally of goals to eight this season.
Benteke's form has meant star striker Darren Bent has had to settle for a peripheral role in recent times, while the likes of Australian pair Brett Holman and Chris Herd, Irishman Ciaran Clark and Scot Barry Bannan have also impressed.
The last time the two sides met, goals from Ivanovic and Torres in the last 10 minutes gave Chelsea a 4-2 win at Villa Park.
That was revenge for Villa's 3-1 win at Stamford Bridge earlier in the season. Recent history suggests the match should be close, with Chelsea having won four of the last 10 meetings while Villa have triumphed in three.
Chelsea are likely to welcome Gary Cahill back from suspension but John Terry (knee) and Daniel Sturridge (hamstring) are longer-term casualties. Nigerian midfielder John Obi Mikel is suspended.
Gabriel Agbonlahor is hopeful of returning from a knock for the match, but Villa will be without defenders Richard Dunne (groin), Ron Vlaar (calf) and Gary Gardner (knee) while Bent's involvement is doubtful due to a hamstring problem.
A full strength Chelsea should take all three points at the Bridge however anything less than 100% focus and concentration will allow Villa the chance to take something from a fixture that last season they dominated.