Grant set for crunch with Cech in doubt

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The Independent Football

Chelsea's injury crisis has increased the likelihood that they will be forced to field their third-string goalkeeper, Hilario, against Aston Villa today but ghosts from Christmases past will remind them that they have prevailed before with the chips stacked against them in similar circumstances.

Their No 1 custodian, Petr Cech, hobbled off at Ewood Park on Sunday with damage to his side and hip after an accidental collision with Blackburn's Roque Santa Cruz. Scans since have shown bruising and while Chelsea have not categorically ruled him out today, a statement saying they "hope to have him back playing as soon as possible" did not suggest an imminent return.

Cech's usual stand-in, Carlo Cudicini, was not in contention as a substitute on Sunday because he injured his ribs in training last week. He too, is being constantly monitored, but Chelsea could go no further yesterday than say "we hope to have him available again as soon as possible."

Should neither man make it, then Chelsea already without their captain, John Terry, and their main striker, Didier Drogba will again turn to Hilario, who deputised for Cech at Blackburn and kept a clean sheet for his 30 minutes between the sticks.

Chelsea have had it worse in a previous festive season. For their corresponding game 36 years ago, played on 27 December 1971 at home against Ipswich, they were without their No 1 and No 2 goalkeepers, Peter Bonetti and John Phillips, both injured.

Thus they called on their green No 3, Steve Sherwood, who had gone home to Yorkshire. Except the fog was so dense and the traffic consequently so bad that even a police escort did not allow him to make it to the stadium in time, so David Webb had to play in goal instead.

The happy result? Chelsea won 2-0, and went on to finish the season a place above Manchester United in the top-flight table. Albeit with six other teams, headed by Derby County, above them.

More recent Yuletide games have also tended to go Chelsea's way. They have not lost at Stamford Bridge on Boxing Day since a 2-1 defeat to Wimbledon in 1995. And, famously, they have not now lost any league game at home at all since February 2004, on a run that stands at 71 matches unbeaten this morning.

Their new manager Avram Grant's record is none to shabby either: only two defeats in 20 games in charge in all competitions so far, and with 14 wins and 15 clean sheets among them.

Then again, while Villa might be wobbling at the moment, with just two points from their last 12, they have not lost away since defeat at Manchester City in September. And they did beat Chelsea 2-0 when the teams met earlier in the season on Villa's turf.

"I do not like the word revenge," Grant said. "But of course I would like to win this time." He praised Martin O'Neill's side, however, warning: "We know they are a very, very good team, well organised, with a good manager. It will be a tough game."

If there is a queasiness about Chelsea's title hopes, it is not obvious within the camp, despite Terry and Drogba being absent, despite the imminent loss of four players when the African Nations Cup starts next month, and despite the goalkeeping injuries.

But it was at this stage last year that Chelsea's push for a third straight title was undone in strangely similar circumstances, right down to the club being without Terry and Cech for their Boxing Day game. On that occasion, the visitors were Reading, who went away with a 2-2 draw. Chelsea then dropped four more points with draws at home against Fulham and away at Villa and there was no getting back, convincingly, into the race.

Grant insists that he relishes the seasonal fixture list. "This is almost the only country in the world still playing now," he said. "But from the outside, even from when I was in my twenties, I would look at Christmas fixtures in England and take an interest. It seemed so exciting. And I can only say that it's even more exciting being a part of it."

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