It’s usually around this part of the season that those unfortunate teams doomed to Championship football next year are revealed. Of course, Wolves did nothing to shake off the favourites tag they achieved at Christmas and will be playing the likes of Charlton Athletic rather than Manchester United. But for the two teams to join them next season, the battle is wide open. QPR still have a strong case for relegation; just outside the bottom three by the virtue of a higher goal difference, but with a difficult few last games, that of Stoke and Manchester City. Blackburn and Bolton also look contenders for the last two places, both lacking the form that you would desire in this stage of the season, the form that we are seeing from Wigan, whose 4-0 hammering of Newcastle United may have eased fears, providing they can keep their run of form going.
But the team I want to look at today is Aston Villa. The Birmingham based club have been dropping points at an alarming rate, with poor performances to match. Villa currently sit on 37 points, only three points above Bolton who currently occupy the last relegation place. It’s important to note that they do possess a superior goal difference (-14) compared all the teams attempting to beat the drop.
Villa’s last league win was back on March 10th, a 1-0 victory over Fulham. Since then they have recorded four losses and four draws, a total of four points from a possible 24. If you consider that to the team below them in the table, Wigan Athletic , who since March 11th have had a total of five wins (including victories over Manchester United, Arsenal and Newcastle United), one draw and a highly controversial loss to Chelsea. All in all, 16 points from a possible 21. Perhaps if Wigan had started as brightly in August they wouldn’t be in the bottom quarter of the table, but their successful battle against relegation seems to be a seasonal tradition; one which they would hate to ruin for their fans.
Looking forward to the remaining fixtures, Aston Villa will face Tottenham and Norwich, and there is a strong argument that a single point in these remaining fixtures will be hard to come by. Spurs destroyed a lacklustre Blackburn side on the weekend, and showed that they won’t be taking it easy on teams as they fight for Champions League football next season. Norwich’s current form may be comforting to Villa fans; losing their last three games and conceding eleven. However, Norwich on the last day of the season will not be an easy victory, as if results go their way, Norwich could be looking at a finish as high as 8th (providing Grant Holt is on form; they’ll need a goal difference swing of 24 goals).
Looking at their relegation rivals, Wigan’s remaining games are against Blackburn and Wolves; the dream two fixtures if looking to beat the drop. If you look at their current form, Wigan must be expected to pick up the six points and free them from the proverbial ‘dog-fight’. If Bolton and QPR can scrape four points from their remaining games, then the pressure really is on Aston Villa to win. As Bolton have a game in hand, albeit against Spurs, if Villa fail to win next weekend they could see their safety resting simply on goal difference with one game left.
With goal difference playing such a large part in the club’s safety, Villa must find themselves a goal scorer and quick. Villa has managed 36 goals all season, the lowest total of all the teams in the relegation battle. Their top three goal scorers this season are Darren Bent (10), who injured himself in February and will not appear for the rest of the season, Gabriel Agbonlahor (6), and Stiliyan Petrov (4), who was tragically diagnosed with Leukemia and will not feature again this season. Agbonlahor has had a very mixed season, and in recent weeks has seemed to lack the enthusiasm of a top flight striker and the urgency of one in trying to save his team from relegation. With Emile Heskey famed for his lack of proficiency in front of goal, they may have to look to capitalise from set pieces, using the aerial presence of Richard Dunne. One goal in each game will do it for them, so a late flood of form isn’t required, just two scrappy goals.
So is it so unexpected that Aston Villa is in the position we find it in? The answer should be no. The public view Villa as a club that has always been in the top flight of the English League, which isn’t a ridiculous perception to hold; as they’ve been in every Premier League season, and last year celebrated 100 years in the top division of English Football. But this doesn’t give them the right to stay in it for another 100 years, far from it. When you consider the Premier League, Villa are a fixed part of it, since the departure of Martin O’Neill their future in the league has been questionable. Last season, the addition of Darren Bent was one of the sole reasons for them achieving mediocrity in the league (if you consider their form prior to the January transfer window), and things have not got much better for the club. Supporters seem to suffer from this assumption that Aston Villa need not worry about the relegation zone, true to the old phrase ‘too good to go down.’ Instead, we are blinded by the hangover of Martin O’Neill’s tenancy in which he overachieved with the club and same 6th in the 2009/10 season.
The next two games will shape Aston Villa for the future, as The Championship becoming more of a competitive league, instant return is far from guaranteed. Look at West Ham for example, who were tipped to run away with the league, now entering the play-offs with many considering their credentials to win it. Other examples of Blackpool, Birmingham, Middlesbrough, and Hull show that although they still possess the quality to challenge, the league isn’t there’s to take. With a team like Aston Villa, if they are unfortunate enough to become one of the two teams to be relegated, the young talent in that team would be raided by bigger clubs, and Villa may not be able to maintain an immediate push back into the Premier League. There are worse places to be than The Championship, but after 101 years in The Premier League, fans won’t want to give up their status just yet.