If I had told you back in early August that Blackpool's visit to Villa Park in mid-November would be a vitally important early-season lash, would you have believed me? No. No, you certainly would not have. Which is reasonable, seeing as how you are not borderline insane. (At least I assume.) Unfortunately, the Premier League is at the moment borderline insane; at the moment Blackpool sit two places above Villa in the table and other clubs in better position at the moment include Newcastle, Sunderland, Bolton, West Brom and Fulham. Villa are in 14th place, and that sounds fairly dire until you realize that they're as close to the European places as they are the bottom of the table. Things are ridiculously tight at the moment, and if the separation that will make us comfortable is ever going to reveal itself Villa need to start beating teams like Blackpool. Especially at home.
I've been effusive for my praise of Blackpool this season. They're a lot of fun. They attack. Ian Holloway is hilarious. The all-or-nothing style them employ has lead to 6-0 and 4-0 defeats to Arsenal and Chelsea, but it has also allowed for Blackpool to trounce Wigan 4-0 away and pull out one of the shockers of the year in defeating Liverpool 2-1 at Anfield. Make no mistake; Blackpool can score, and they can score against better defenses than ours. The key here will be to prevent them from doing so early on and to take advantage of the opportunities that we all know will present themselves early on. I've been saying for weeks now that 'if' Villa are able to generate early chances then capitalizing upon them will be key, but let's be honest; Villa will dominate things in the early going. They have the advantage in terms of sheer athleticism and pace, and it's not particularly close. But Villa have been able to do very little with those advantages, and if they are unable to do so against Blackpool it might raise serious questions about their ability to rise above the lower third of the table.
Villa have too much talent to be a serious candidate for a relegation battle, even when things are packed as tightly as they are this season. But the club has not performed especially well relative to their competition and I'm struggling to find reasons to think they're really suited to finishing in the top half of the table. A win against Blackpool wouldn't erase those doubts, but seeing as how the matchup in terms of skill is not especially advantageous, it certainly wouldn't hurt. To step outside of the objective mindset for a second, while I can see Villa losing or drawing this match, to do so would raise some pretty serious alarm bells in my mind. This is a bit of a mental breaking point for me, and as much as I respect Blackpool and what they've done a loss here would be a pretty tremendous blow to not only Villa's European aspirations but also my confidence in the club's ability to finish respectably.
Quite simply, Blackpool are a club that were playing in the Championship at this point last year, required a playoff in order to gain promotion and have very little history at this level. Yes, the last newly promoted club that Villa played defeated us 6-0, but as humiliating and humbling a defeat as that was Newcastle United are a bit of a different animal than Blackpool. And if Villa don't wish to end up in a similar position to Newcastle they'll need to defeat teams like Blackpool when they play host. The Tangerines' defense is beyond questionable. Their most dangerous scoring threat could not come anywhere near Villa's rotation these past few seasons. Their star player Charlie Adam is a legitimate quality talent, but he's not capable of taking over a game in the way Ashley Young or Marc Albrighton (how neat is it to say that) are capable of taking over a game. Blackpool are dangerous and better than you might expect, but they aren't talented enough to expect to come into Villa Park and walk away with three points.
There are causes for concern of course, with Villa's well known injury troubles looming large and the failures of the defense to keep crucial goals out of the net fresh in everyone"s mind. We're almost certain to see a Bannan-Clark central pairing once again, and while the youngsters were quite good against Fulham consistency is not necessarily something that can be expected of players with such little experience. Nathan Delfouneso will most likely start once again, though given Gabriel Agbonlahor's apparent availability (*ahem*) on the bench Gerard Houllier may choose to start with Ashley Young alone up top and bring off one of the midfielders should another goal be necessary and Gabby is in fact capable of playing. The backline is at least solid for the time being, which is something of a miracle.
I keep attempting to predict Villa's lineup and Houllier keeps doing something weird, which I am generally okay with but it makes me think that trying to predict a lineup is kind of a dumb thing to do. Brad Freidel will probably start. So will Richard Dunne and Stephen Warnock. Ashley Young could be any one of three places, but he'll be in the XI. Aside from that, who the hell knows? And really, what does it matter? No matter what lineup Villa can run out tomorrow, the strengths will be the same; the defense will be stout,the counter will be dangerous, the speed advantage will be enormous, and the crossing game will be there. Same deal with the weaknesses; Villa can get sloppy at the back under continuous pressure, concede on set pieces and have trouble finding the net. It's a pattern, and it's fairly annoying; all of the positive play in the world is worthless if you can't capitalize.
This game could be a Godsend if Villa are able to make a positive impression. If Stephen Ireland is dangerous, if Ashley Young creates chances for the attack and trouble for the keeper, if Villa's defense regain their impenetrable form we'll all feel better. A loss and chances are good we enter Doomtown. I don't much feel like entertaining the latter. Blackpool are awesome and fun and dangerous and a good story. They're not as good as Aston Villa, and putting that point to paper would go a long way towards pulling me out of my general sense of malaise.