Paul Lambert had a dream week, and Aston Villa didn’t even kick a ball. Swansea City’s win at Wigan Athletic on Tuesday was the toast of the entire bottom half of the division, but nowhere more so than at Villa Park, where ahead of the Saturday lunchtime match against Chelsea, the locals can begin to believe that Premier League safety is in reach.
It has been one long, hard slog for Villa and their young, inexperienced team, who have endured more ups and downs than a bouncy castle at a kid’s party this year.
The analogy seems apt, because so many of the players that Lambert has been relying on have been boys trying to do a man’s job, and even Villa’s star player, Christian Benteke, is only 22.
With youth comes inconsistency, but there has been enough in some of Villa’s displays to suggest they would be okay and last week’s vital last-gasp win at Norwich, coupled with Wigan’s loss on Tuesday, means Villa are five points clear of the drop zone with two to play, and you would fancy them to get over the line from this position.
In fact, Lambert’s week would have been even better had Chelsea managed to hold on to their lead against Tottenham in midweek.
At 2-1 up with less than ten minutes to go, the Blues were on the verge of securing their place in the top four with two games to spare.
Gylfi Sigurdsson had other ideas, though, and the Icelandic midfielder’s equaliser means that Rafa Benitez’s side need three points from their remaining two games to finish in the Champions League places.
Had Chelsea hung on, it would have been easy to imagine Benitez making wholesale changes with the Europa League final against Benfica on Wednesday in mind, which would have made Villa’s job much easier – hell, Paulo Ferreira might even have got a game.
But as it is, Benitez will need to field as strong a team as he can, because failure to win means the Blues would go into the final match of the season against Everton in need of a win in what is now David Moyes’ last match in charge as well as Rafa’s.
And I do think that Chelsea will take care of business. They are 3/4 to win, with the draw at 11/4 and the home win at 333/100 – but take the 6/4 on an away win that sees over 2.5 goals (potentially worth £50 to new customers using their free £20 bet).
A staggering 22 of Villa’s last 27 matches since the start of the Christmas schedule have seen three goals or more, so there is no reason to think that the visit of Chelsea will be any different.
Twelve of the Blues’ last 16 have also produced over 2.5 goals, with six of the Europa League finalists’ last seven away games seeing at least three goals scored.
So goals are likely, and as far as the result goes, Chelsea have the edge.
Villa are actually in great form with five wins in their last eight, but all of those victories have come against sides in the bottom half, which is great for their survival prospects – but it is a different prospect facing this Blues side.
Chelsea have won ten of the last 15, drawing two, and have won 12 of the 19 games they have played against the teams in the bottom half of the league.
By contrast, Villa have lost 14 of their 19 fixtures against the teams in the top half of the division, and the gulf in class will ultimately show.
But I expect goals at either end – Chelsea have kept just five clean sheets in 15, while Villa haven’t stopped the other team from scoring for 25 games – so take the 6/4 on an away win and over 2.5 goals.