Chelsea rout renews Villa's focus
It is just two weeks since the agony of their 7-1 league defeat at Stamford Bridge so it is probably stating the obvious to say that Aston Villa's players will have a point to prove when they face Chelsea again in Saturday's FA Cup semi-final.
That mauling also resulted in a period of soul-searching at Villa Park for manager Martin O'Neill and his squad that went far deeper than putting right an embarrassing defeat.
Taking any positives whatsoever from the Chelsea debacle appeared unlikely in the immediate aftermath of what O'Neill described as his "worst day in football".
And things got even worse a couple of days later when rumours - that turned out to be completely unsubstantiated - emanating from an internet forum suggested that O'Neill had fallen out with the club's American owner Randy Lerner and was about to resign.
O'Neill's long-term future at Villa remains in doubt Photograph: Getty
It appeared a season that has seen Villa mount a prolonged challenge for a fourth-place finish in the Premier League as well as reach the Carling Cup final could implode in spectacular style.
Instead, there has been a rousing response, on and off the field.
Villa's fans and players came out fighting in defence of O'Neill during and after last week's win over Bolton that keeps them in the hunt for a Champions League place. And, although the former Celtic boss is yet to commit his long-term future to the club, he appears far chirpier now he has been given reassurance - from some quarters at least - that he is wanted at Villa Park.
Could the fresh focus brought on by the Chelsea defeat help Villa get revenge on Sunday, too? Possibly. Dashing Chelsea's hopes of a double in O'Neill's first FA Cup semi-final as a manager would be confirmation that Villa are back in rude health. Yet stopping a side that are in such good form will clearly not be easy, however improved the West Midlands outit are.
Much could depend on Chelsea's outlook, with BBC pundit Alan Hansen warning the ease of that 7-1 win might affect the Blues' focus this weekend. It's a scenario Hansen is familiar with, as he was captain of the Liverpool side which thumped Crystal Palace 9-0 at the start of the 1989/90 season only to be beaten 4-3 in an epic Cup semi-final a few months later.
"Chelsea will go into the game buoyed with confidence but there will be touch of complacency, too," Hansen told me this week. "No matter what the manager or their coaches say to them, I've no doubt that they will be sitting in the dressing room beforehand thinking about the 7-1 game because that is human nature.
"Did complacency play a part in us losing in the Cup against Palace? Not so much beforehand as at half-time, because we went in 1-0 up. But, in all honesty, if it had been a boxing match it would have been stopped then because we had just absolutely pummelled them.
"We knew we had beaten them 9-0 and we had started out as if we were going to do the same again. At the back of our minds we thought that would happen but instead it was 1-1 50 seconds after the restart and we found ourselves in a totally different match after that."
True, it was months and not days which separated those games between Liverpool and Palace. And while Eagles manager Steve Coppell had time to rebuild his side in the meantime, O'Neill, who operates with a small squad, will be able to make limited changes to the side that lost 7-1.
John Terry and Frank Lampard celebrate one of Chelsea's seven goals Photograph: Getty
But that might play into Villa's hands, too. The players' painful memories are fresh even if their legs are not. And on that note, they have an even bigger incentive to succeed following Chelsea captain John Terry's assertion after the game at Stamford Bridge that Villa fade away in the final third of matches.
A clearly narked O'Neill responded by pointing out that ProZone stats show his side are one of the fittest in the top flight, saying: "I hope that comment does not come back to haunt Terry."
Clearly, Villa are not short of reasons to galvanise them ahead of Saturday but, if they did need another carrot, they also have the manner of their loss to United on their first visit to the new Wembley stadium six weeks ago, a defeat which still rankles with O'Neill.
So, motivating his side will not be a problem. Convincing his troops that they can stop Chelsea from steamrollering them into submission again might be a tougher task.
I spoke to sports psychologist James Hamilton about how O'Neill might try to prepare his side, given the debacle that occurred following his half-time team-talk at Stamford Bridge. The answer seems to be to stick to the positives from that game - however few they may be.
"Martin needs to do exactly what he has done personally since that defeat. That's bolster his own self-esteem as a manager and strengthen his own position at the club - with all of his players," Hamilton told me.
"He has already started doing that by steering the blame away from them, by talking about what happened in that game as a mad half-hour in what has been a fantastic season, not the embarrassing surrender he spoke about afterwards.
"The best thing he can do before Saturday is hammer home that what they did in the first half at Stamford Bridge was working and hope they forget what followed. Chelsea's position is completely different, though, and if I were sitting in their dressing room before the game I would almost feel out of a job. Carlo Ancelotti just has to let his players get on with things and keep the shrinks well away from his side."
Villa's tactics will matter just as much as their mental approach, even more so if Richard Dunne fails to shake off an Achilles injury to play at centre-back, where he has been so impressive all season.
As for Chelsea, Didier Drogba may return to the starting XI but it is possible Ancelotti could stick with the line-up that has served him so well domestically in recent weeks and keep Nicolas Anelka as a lone striker.
"Chelsea are creating tons of chances at the moment and you could understand if he sticks with that system at Wembley," added Hansen. "But you cannot write Villa off even if they haven't had a great time since losing the Carling Cup final, culminating in that pasting by Chelsea. You cannot forget that they are a really good side with some top-class players.
"They really want to do well for Martin now after the stick they have had and the only way they can answer their critics is by their actions between now and the end of the season. They bounced back against Bolton and it wouldn't be an upset if they did win at the weekend.
"Even if they don't win another game between now and the summer they will still have had a good season but this could end up being a phenomenal one."
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