Chelsea wary of Aston Villa threat in Christmas crunch
Rafael Benitez admits Chelsea are entering a crucial stage in their season as his side attempt to revive their fast-fading Premier League title ambitions.
Benitez's side enter the Christmas programme in third place, but that standing was in danger of being transformed by the time they face Aston Villa tonight. With Chelsea playing after their main rivals, they could be eighth and trailing leaders Manchester United by 15 points if results have gone against them, albeit with a game in hand.
The Blues' cause will not be helped by the continuing absence of injured skipper John Terry, who could miss all four games over the festive period. The other three are away at Norwich and Everton, and a home tie against Queens Park Rangers.
The prospect of facing Villa seems more challenging than it would have done a week or so ago, with Paul Lambert's side visiting Stamford Bridge on the back of an impressive 3-1 win at Liverpool and a six-game unbeaten run. Benitez is aware of their threat but insists his concerns lie only with his own side.
"Villa are doing well and it seems they are comfortable with the system, three at the back with wing backs, and they have good options in counter-attack because Christian Benteke is a good reference point," Benitez said. "But our priority is our team and what we try to do. Obviously we analyse the other team too, but we want them to have to adapt to us more than us to them."
Chelsea left Japan frustrated at their failure to return with the Club World Cup last week, but they responded well with a 5-1 win at Leeds in their League Cup quarter-final less than 48 hours after arriving back from Asia.
"I was really worried before Leeds because I was not sleeping much, and I am sure some of the players were the same," Benitez said. "The second half, even when winning 4-1, we were pushing and pressing, so I was pleased with the performance and fitness of the team."
Meanwhile, Lambert reassured Villa supporters that he has no plans to sell Benteke after the Belgian's impressive start in England. Benteke has scored eight times since arriving from Genk for £7 million (HK$88 million) in late August and has already been linked with bigger clubs.
"There's no point in us even being here if it's a case of bringing people in and then letting them go. What's the point in that?" the Villa boss said.
"We're trying to build something here which can take a few years and you need good players with you to achieve that.