When Chelsea last hosted Aston Villa in March, Carlo Ancelotti's team put seven goals past a side with the best defensive record away from home in the Premier League. But it is a mark of Chelsea's recent decline that, even with Villa's current poor form, no one anticipates a repeat at Stamford Bridge today.
Wednesday's 1-0 win over Bolton Wanderers was Chelsea's first in seven League games. John Hollins, the former Chelsea manager and FA Cup-winning midfield player, believes that the champions' slump has no single cause. Injuries, and the sacking of Ray Wilkins, the assistant manager, have played a part, but so has the increasing competitiveness of the division this season.
"Chelsea scraped through against Bolton, but all the clubs in the top five that you think should win every game have dropped points recently,"he said. "It's good for the game. Chelsea were only six points ahead of Blackpool before they beat Bolton. Blackpool are playing with no fear, and I think Chelsea have been playing with a little bit of doubt and anxiety about what they're doing.
"When Chelsea are moving the ball around sharply and crisply, they are very hard to play against. But the impetus was lost because of problems down the spine of the team – Didier Drogba contracted malaria, Frank Lampard and John Terry were injured, and I think Terry is struggling pace-wise. Since he allegedly said in November that he wasn't going to keep playing through injuries with pain-killing injections any more, an edge over the opposition has been lost.
"Lampard, I think, is the most important one, because he had never really been injured before. And it wasn't what they first thought, and when you have never had a long-term injury, it changes your whole outlook. You think 'I feel a bit tight there, I'd better not push it', and you tell the physios and they don't want to risk losing you for another six weeks... so they are very careful. When Michael Essien was suspended for three matches [beginning with the 3-0 home defeat by Sunderland] they thought Lampard was coming back the next weekend – but he wasn't."
At that point, Hollins believes, the absence of high-quality replacements such as Michael Ballack, Ricardo Carvalho, Joe Cole and Deco, all allowed to leave last summer, was especially sorely felt. "They have not been replaced with the same type of players," he said. "Deco could keep the ball, so could Ballack, and get into the box as well. Carvalho is a big miss because of the influence he had on the pitch. [Branislav] Ivanovic is a good defender but needs someone alongside to guide him. There was supposedly a decision by Ancelotti to go for youth, but he has rarely stuck his neck on the line by throwing them in rather than giving them 10 or 15 minutes here and there."
The Sunderland match was also the first since the loss of Wilkins, a former Chelsea captain. Hollins sees his departure not only as a blow to morale but also the loss of a valuable line of communication between manager and dressing room. "Ray knew how the players thought and felt," he said. "If you are just picking the team and then going out and watching them, who is going to suggest changes, or tell you which players are feeling tired and could do with a break, or pass on something you've picked up on about what's going on in their private lives?
"The way players behave is not set in stone, and it needs someone like Ray to notice that someone can do with some time off. At the Sunderland game Ancelotti stood on the touchline and I don't think anyone came to tell him anything from the dugout. Both the loss of Ray and the departure of those players in summer could have been a great opportunity for someone, but it hasn't happened that way. Villa are not pulling up any trees, but they will see that Chelsea are vulnerable."
And the lines between success and failure are finer this season than ever before, Hollins said. "Drogba could have been a hero at Tottenham, coming on as a substitute and scoring two goals, but instead he had a penalty saved and it was a massive down. But that's the Premier League."
Chelsea v Aston Villa is onSky Sports 1 today, kick-off 1.30pm
Feeling blue: Ray of hope has gone
Nine matches before Wilkins' exit:
Marseille (h) 2-0
Arsenal (h) 2-0
Aston Villa (a) 0-0
Spartak Moscow (a) 2-0
Wolves (h) 2-0
Blackburn (a) 2-1
Spartak Moscow (h) 4-1
Liverpool (a) 0-2
Fulham (h) 1-0
Since Wilkins' exit:
Sunderland (h) 0-3
Birmingham (a) 0-1
Zilina (h) 2-1
Newcastle (a) 1-1
Everton (h) 1-1
Marseille (a) 0-1
Tottenham (a) 1-1
Arsenal (a) 1-3
Bolton (h) 1-0Reuse content