I think just about everyone is feeling better about Aston Villa' s standing in the league than they were this time last week. When the table is this tight it's amazing what three points (expected or not) can do for your spirits. Villa have a very good chance to pick up another three tomorrow when they travel to DW Stadium in Manchester to face Wigan. The Latics currently sit in 18th position just four points behind Villa, but to be honest it's hard to understand how that is when watching them play. For much of the season Wigan have looked every bit the worst team in the Premier League, a team barely capable of holding their own in the Championship let alone the top flight. On other occasions they've been, well not good exactly, but they've been able to take points from clashes with far better teams. Coupled with Villa's road mark of one win, one draw and four losses and things don't look as rosy as they perhaps did on the surface. This season has conditioned many of us to expect disappointment.
This isn't the time for that. Make no mistake. Aston Villa have looked bad on many occasions this year, but they're not. A combination of njuries, the tumultuous start to the season, a new manager seeking to make sweeping changes to the squad's culture and the inconsistencies of youth have contributed to performances and results far below what one would expect from this collection of talent. Wigan are just bad. Really, really bad, at least in the context of the Premier League. No team should ever face them and expect to drop points and Aston Villa should not play them and expect anything but all three points. Roberto Martinez is a solid manager and Hugo Rodallega, Charles N'Zogbia and Manchester United loanee Tom Cleverley are all solid players, but collectively this is a poor squad. They've scored just 13 goals and have a differential of -13, dead last in the league in both respects. The brand of football they play is fairly entertaining, but they seem largely incapable of creating or capitalizing on chances. Their defense is not generally a disaster, but they're prone to collapsing in spectacular fashion.
Please do stop me if any of this sounds familiar.
It never really occurred to me before, but Wigan are basically a much worse version of the Aston Villa we've seen so far this season. Villa are more talented in attack, stronger at the back and a bit more prone to play for the counter but when things go wrong with these two clubs they tend to go wrong in a similar fashion. That should be good news for Villa as they've been able to put a lot of pressure on other clubs and control the run of play but in many cases not been rewarded with points. Wigan are far more likely to cave to that sort of pressure, so it will be important that Villa come out early and establish control in this one. The Latics are not the kind of team that you invite onto your defense and try to spring one on; Villa need to be direct and aggressive in the attack and do their best to put this one to bed early. Wigan have players capable of causing some damage, so it's important to put them on the defensive early and forcing them to alter their approach.
Youngs Luke and Ashley are out with injury while Stephen Ireland and Richard Dunne are out with petulance, but Villa are still the stronger side by far. This is the kind of game that absolutely must be won if the team have designs on a respectable finish. There are valid reasons not to panic about the way the season has gone to this point, but a loss or uninspiring draw in this match is absolutely cause for grave concern. The excuses are disappearing by the day. A lot of people have been unfairly critical of Villa and Gerard Houllier this season and tomorrow is not the time to add legitimacy to their complaints. Tomorrow is the time to win and win convincingly, to give the club a boost heading into a rough stretch of schedule and the January transfer window. This isn't the biggest game the team has played so far and it's certainly not the biggest to come, but Aston Villa are still at the stage of their (we hope) recovery where every result is massive. The victory over West Brom gave us all a boost. It's not the time to wash that out but to build on it and Wigan are the perfect opponent against which to do so.