LONDON // It was not so much no fear as no choice. Carlo Ancelotti ambled into the Cobham press room yesterday afternoon and let the world know what his starting XI would be for at Aston Villa this evening.
He rattled off a catalogue of injuries - old and new - then went through a team that more or less amounted to the senior players he was left to work with. "Frank Lampard is not available, Drogba is not available, Sturridge, Kalou, Alex," said Ancelotti, pausing for thought. "Others? Benayoun is not available. The line-up will be Cech; Ferreira, Ivanovic, Terry, Cole; Ramires, Essien, Mikel; Kakuta, Malouda, Anelka."
His substitutes bench will be comprised of kids, save for the only ever intermittently used Yuri Zhirkov and Jose Boswinga, a player recovering from a complicated double knee surgery and ready to play "maybe 30 minutes" if match circumstances permit. Though conveniently available just four days after crying off England duty with a back problem, John Terry "is not 100 per cent fit", yet needed to cover for the sidelined Alex and the callow Jeffrey Bruma.
Lampard continues to suffer the complications of what was meant to be a minimally disruptive operation to tidy up old groin surgery and is a fortnight away from returning. Didier Drogba has been hit so heavily by illness, Ancelotti is unsure if the striker will make Tuesday's Champions League group game at Spartak Moscow. Yossi Benayoun faces surgery on a ruptured Achilles next week and will not play for six months.
Chelsea went into their title defence with the shallowest squad of the Premier League's major powers and seven games into the campaign it is already looking stretched. Familiar questions about the quality of the club's medical department have resurfaced over Benayoun's injury, which the player says went undetected at Chelsea only to be discovered by the Israeli national team last week.
"I had three MRI scans and three ultrasounds under the Chelsea doctors and they all said it was just a small tear," said Benayoun. "So I went over to Israel ready to play and they told me it was a big tear. Chelsea were sure it was something small. They do not understand how they missed it."
Having been publicly embarrassed over errors in the treatment of Michael Ballack and Michael Essien in previous seasons, Chelsea sought to defend club doctor Bryan English yesterday. "I don't know what happened after he [Benayoun] left England," said Ancelotti. "I haven't asked him because I haven't seen him. I trust my doctor at this club, and we are sure. I can say this: he didn't have a tear on his tendon when he left England."
Villa away was the match that brought Ancelotti's first defeat as Chelsea coach last season, yet such is the Italian's determination to draw a stoic public face on every problem that he declared himself "happy" with the opportunity to test his squad. A four-point early-season lead has helped his mood.
"The motivation is to maintain this good gap," he said. "This is our aim, our motivation. When we arrive at a difficult moment, we still want to be at the top, as we were last year. We had difficult moments then but, when we did, we were still top because we'd built up that gap. It gives us leeway."
Key Battle Marc Albrighton v Ashley Cole The emergence of Albrighton has meant Villa have coped without the injured Gabriel Agbonlahor; Ashley Young has been moved centrally with Albrighton patrolling the right in place of Young. Albrighton faces probably the best left-back in the world today. Tactics Gerard Houllier has characterised his reign in charge of Villa by making Emile Heskey the focal point of the attack. If the ex-England centre-forward is at his best and is provided with ample service, he could prove a handful for a Chelsea defence missing Alex.
Previous meetings Villa recorded a stirring 2-1 win in the corresponding fixture last season but were steamrolled, 7-1, by the champions in the return fixture at Stamford Bridge in March. Chelsea added insult to injury by knocking Villa out of the FA Cup at the semi-final stage a month later.
Line-ups Villa (4-4-2) Friedel; L Young, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; Albrighton, Petrov, Reo-Coker, Downing; Young, Heskey. Chelsea (Probable 4-3-3) Cech; Ferreira, Ivanovic, Terry Cole; Essien, Ramires, Mikel, Kakuta; Anelka, Malouda
Facts • Chelsea have won just once in their last 11 Premier League visits to Villa Park. • Villa conceded 11 goals in three games against Cheslea, including seven in one game. • Chelsea’s four-point lead at the top is the biggest at this stage since 2005.