Chelsea face test of progress
BIRMINGHAM: For all the progress Chelsea have made under Carlo Ancelotti, doubts over their away form continue to hang over them ahead of a difficult trip to Aston Villa.
Just 24 hours after the club were scheduled to lodge an official appeal against a FIFA-imposed transfer ban until January 2011, in light of the manner in which they induced Gael Kakuta to the club from Lens in 2007, Chelsea travel to Villa Park aiming to prove their recent showings on the road were no more than a minor blip.
The transfer issue will linger behind the scenes at Stamford Bridge until Christmas, at least, and on the field manager Ancelotti must ensure his players keep their focus.
A 2-0 success over title rivals Liverpool before the international break helped them remain ahead of Manchester United at the summit of the Premier League, yet the trip to the Midlands poses the latest question over this side's character.
Chelsea's last domestic away fixture resulted in a 3-1 defeat at Wigan. The scoreline led to captain John Terry calling on his teammates to show a better work ethic.
Since then, Chelsea have beaten Apoel Nicosia in the Champions League, but even that display in Cyprus was unconvincing.
Over the international break Ivory Coast forward Salomon Kalou and Brazilian defender Alex have agreed new contracts.
They join Terry, Ashley Cole, Didier Drogba and Michael Mancienne in committing their long-term futures to Chelsea, and the spirit within the side is clearly a strength Ancelotti is attempting to turn into one of his main assets.
Keeper Petr Cech believes there are enough signs to suggest Chelsea are moving in the right direction but that confidence will be quickly shattered if they slump to a second league defeat, particularly as United are expected to claim maximum points at home to Bolton
"When you have a good start, even in the games you don't play particularly well in, you manage to win the games and that's a good sign," Cech said.
"After the Wigan game, when we didn't play well and lost, we had a great reaction against Liverpool and now we've got Villa away which is always a difficult game.
"If we can get three points we'll have another advantage."
Villa's Stephen Warnock, meanwhile, admits the style of Chelsea's football this season has made the London club more formidable opponents than the side that fell short of matching United last year.
Warnock believes the diamond formation allows Ancelotti's side to be more fluid in their attacking play and, as a left-back, is bracing himself for a testing 90 minutes.
"In the diamond they've got Michael Essien moving out wide and Nicolas Anelka and Jose Bosingwa go out there too," said Warnock.
"So I won't be getting much sleep at all the night before. It will be the same as usual when I come up against Chelsea."
The main issue surrounding the home side surrounds the future of forward Emile Heskey.
During the international break he made it clear that he will seek a move away from the club in Janaury, in order to enhance his chances of being involved in the World Cup with England.
Heskey has started just once in the Premier League for manager Martin O'Neill this season, and Villa are likely to start with Gabriel Agbonlahor and John Carew in attack against Chelsea.
After a shaky start to the campaign, Villa are up to seventh place in the table, but Ashley Young (foot), Curtis Davies (shoulder) and Stewart Downing (ankle) all remain absent.
Chelsea, meanwhile, can call on fit-again Joe Cole, while Cech is available following suspension.