By Kris Woodward
Aston Villa’s winning game streak came to an eventful end last weekend with a 1-1 draw against Leeds United. Whilst the ten wins breaks previous records, it has been this 12-game unbeaten streak that has seen Aston Villa’s dreary season turn into a hopeful play-off chance.
Villa are now being unbeaten for a quarter of the season and will look to extend this into the final match of the season against Norwich, this weekend.
Going into the Championship play-offs no team boasts such momentum and form as Villa, but Dean Smith’s men have another advantage that has materialised just in time. For the first time this season, Villa boast almost a completely fit squad to choose from.
The result of this game doesn’t really make any difference to Villa’s season in terms of the table. After a draw against Leeds United, Villa are now unable to catch West Bromwich Albion in 4thand after Derby’s draw against Swansea on Wednesday, there aren’t any teams below Villa able to make the ground.
As a result, Dean Smith will have a chance to make changes against the Canaries.
Whole sale changes or keep a strong XI?
Whilst this game doesn’t affect Villa’s league standing, going into the play-offs unbeaten in 13 would give the players a massive psychological boost.
This then means Smith has the tough decision over how many players he should rest players ahead of the play-offs or does he keep a strong side to continue the run.
Resting players has always seemed quite a strange concept. Of course as professional athletes, it’s a player’s job to play a game each week, something they are paid quite handsomely to do.
The idea then of them being rested one week seems quite novel, especially considering you’d be laughed at if you suggested it at a normal place of work.
However, Villa fans clearly saw the benefits of this when John McGinn had a two-match ban earlier in the season.
Whilst this was due to accumulating too many yellow cards, sitting out the two games was clearly beneficial for McGinn who came back full of his usual energy, scoring five goals and assisting two, in the first six games after returning.
With recent injuries to Tammy Abraham, and most notably Villa’s defence, there aren’t many players in the squad that you could argue would need a rest.
Whelan was rested at the weekend despite coming on to close the game. This might mean that Grealish may be considered for a rest, especially considering the kick-in he got at Elland Road; Hourihane and potentially Lansbury coming in to replace him.
Smith has already alluded to the fact McGinn will be rested for Norwich, with him one yellow card away from a three match ban.
With Abraham also recovering from a shoulder injury, he is also unlikely to start but may feature. Potentially young striker Keinan Davis could start ahead of Jonathon Kodja.
The defence may see the biggest change with both Kalinic and Steer fit and available for selection. As mentioned in the latest MOMS podcast, Steer is unbeaten in a Villa shirt since returning to the starting XI and will no doubt be the number one throughout the play-offs. It’ll be Smith’s decision then to either keep Steer in the team, despite picking up a knock against Leeds, or give him a rest and start Kalinic.
Hutton, Elphick, Chester and Hause are also all up for selection giving Villa and for what seems like the first time all season have an abundance of players fit and ready to play at the back.
It will be important for Smith to give the likes of Hause and Elphick valuable minutes to get them up to scratch, in case they have any part to play in the play-offs.
No doubt Hutto, will play some part, so he has a chance to say goodbye to Villa Park in what will inevitably be his last regular season game in a Villa shirt.
Whatever Smith’s choice, to say this game doesn’t make a difference would be a little naïve. Villa will want to keep that momentum and a damaging loss before two tricky legs against West Brom (in all likeliness) wouldn’t be ideal.
When you consider a draw will be enough for Norwich to lift the title, there potentially could be a loss of urgency to proceedings, but that will suit Villa just fine.