Ever since relegation was sealed in the 2015/16 season – officially it was in April, but it was pretty much a stick-on from January onwards – Villa fans have had the prime focus of getting out of the Championship.
It’s perhaps harder than it’s ever been, unless you take the Sunderland approach of leaving via the basement, and given that Villa used to talk about breaking into the Champions’ League spots, last year’s parade of mediocrity was perhaps more stinging than the relegation that preceded it.
While this season has seen Steve Bruce introduce an element of stability that wasn’t there last year, it’s been far from exhilarating to witness. Wolves are running away with one of the automatic promotion spots, and while the spot beneath them has rotated through a few pairs of hands, it’s not landed on us just yet – but Villa are far from out of the reckoning right now.
By the final day of the campaign in early May, Villa could be automatically promoted, or possibly out of the playoffs altogether. Where we do end up will rely a great deal on how we handle the big games that are left – especially the following three.
Tues 30 January – Sheffield United (A)
It goes without saying that a full preview of this game would be unwise, as both teams will hope to have strengthened their squads by the end of this month.
Sheffield United’s needs are perhaps more urgent. Despite starting the season in breathtaking form, their current squad has struggled to cope with injuries. However, even if their form has dropped off, with a single win from their last five league outings, they’re still in the playoff spots.
With Villa currently on a winning run of three games, their trip to Bramall Lane comes amongst three home ties against three of the bottom six clubs. Win them and a win against United would give Villa the kind of serious winning run that’s needed to propel them into the automatic promotion spots.
A midweek game at Bramall Lane, is the kind of game that might see the visitors as favourites with the likes of Stratabet. It’s games like this where Bruce’s defensive style can pay off, frustrating the opposition and punishing their mistakes ala recently in the Middlesbrough and Forest away games.
Sat 17th February – Fulham (A)
Yes, this comes hot on the heels of the run of games mentioned above, but if you harnessed Sheffield United’s early-season form to Fulham’s recent showings, you’d have a team to challenge Wolves at the top.
The Cottagers’ confusing defeat at Sunderland last month aside, they’ve been ruthless in recent games, and look set to hang on to teen prodigy Ryan Sessegnon at least until the summer.
When you recall how Fulham beat Villa 3-1 last season in the corresponding fixture, getting anything from this trip to London will be challenging – and a victory would be a great result.
Sat 28th April – Derby County (H)
Gary Rowett’s showing with Derby has in many ways been more impressive than what’s gone on at Wolves, as it’s come on a thinner budget. Other promotion chasers will have been disappointed that Rowett turned down the chance to take over at Stoke, as a managerial change could have unsettled the East Midlands side and seen them drop out of the top two.
It looks like that will have to be done the hard way, which means a victory for Villa in this match on the season’s penultimate weekend will be imperative.
Villa lost the previous meeting at Pride Park, a game in which Bruce decided to pick a team with no recognised striker. With any luck, revenge will be gained as we bid farewell to April.
Anything more than six points from the nine on offer in these games, and Villa will be right in the mix at the season’s end.