Chelsea test more than on the pitch for Lambert's Villa
By Oliver Wilson
Paul Lambert was all smiles on Saturday evening as he discussed his side’s fantastic 3-1 win on the opening day of the season against Arsenal.
Dancing on the touchline and punching the air at fulltime, the Aston Villa manager was obviously delighted having pulled off an opening day upset against a side that will be in Champions League action this Wednesday. Decked out in a suit rather than the usual tracksuit we've grown accstom to seeing him don on a match day, this was a Lambert rong removed from the dour solem figure who graced the touchlines of the Premier League last season.
“I think everybody up and down the country thought it was a home banker. I’ve got lads in there that are really good top footballers and, as I’ve said, the front three lads have got goals in them,” he beamed from behind a desk decked out in badges of his defeated opposition.
He was right to be happy in that moment after his side put on a pinpoint performance of near perfect counter attacking football, soaking up the rare moments of pressure a weak and slightly decrepit Arsenal side could put together, while breaking with the pace of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann on the flanks.
For Villa, though, their London job was half done, and while their fans celebrated the replay’s of the goals from that day as they played out on the big screen at full time, Lambert and his side will have been straight back into ‘game mode’ in preparation for the even tougher test of Jose Mourinho’s Chelsea this Wednesday night.
The game at Stamford Bridge will mean more to Villa than just any normal trip to the Fulham area of London and Lambert, the ever determined competitor, will want to exorcise the demons of last season on a ground where their side reached one if it’s lowest points in their Premier League history.
The 23rd of December last year saw the Villans' fans travel down to their small corner of the Shed End with high hopes if stealing a draw from, then manager, Rafa Benitez’ side. Villa were coming into London off the back of a thunderous thumping of Liverpool at Anfield the week before and a 4-1 thumping away at Norwich in the 11th of that month. Seven goals in two games and undefeated six, the end of the year was looking like a relaxing time for the Midlanders.
But the total capitulation that took place on the pitch at Stamford Bridge was something that the fans that made the two-hour trip south will never forget. The embarrassment of Fernando Torres scoring twice against Brad Guzan appeared trivial compared to the other six efforts that hit the back of the net as Chelsea carved out an 8-0 humiliation of Villa. It shook the core of a young side that had never tasted such embarrassment before, a side that was just beginning to find their feet in the Premier League; a side that couldn’t afford see its fragile confidence broken in such a way.
The knock on effect was disastrous as Villa were sent on a run that saw them win just one game in their next seven games while the embarrassment of dropping out of the League Cup to Bradford and the FA Cup to Milwall were not lost on the players or the fans. Their season fell apart in spectaular fashion as the young players charged with carrying Villa past their disasterous season under Alex Mcleish lost thier way, looking fearful on the pitch and lacking creativity and ambition coming forward.
Their late run of form, inspired by the goal scoring streak of Christian Benteke, was enough to avoid a final day fight for relegation with Wigan Athletic but Lambert will be more than aware that it was the lashing they took five-months before the end of the season that kick started the chain reaction that saw them teetering on the brink of relegation from England’s topflight for the first time since the League’s inception in 1992.
The Villa manager might want to employ the physical tactics he used to intimidate Arsene Wenger’s team on the opening day of the season and it’s likely that his fast breaking, counter attacking style he used against the Gunners on Saturday will be used to full effect again in London. More important than the tactics, though, will be dispelling the nerves that will be in his young side as they prepare to step out under the floodlights of Stamford Bridge.
Tomorrow night, however tough Saturday was, will be the biggest test Villa will face in this early part of the season and will be a huge indicator of how much this side has grown in nine months, and more importantly, how well Lambert has been able to repair a club that last season, almost fell apart.