And so the third and (hopefully) final Second City Derby is upon us and it really couldn't be coming at a worse time for Aston Villa. Villa will be without both Ashley Young and Emile Heskey, both serving suspensions, and Jean Makoun will not be available for at least two weeks. Meanwhile Birmingham City should feature loan signing David Bentley and midfielder Lee Bowyer will return from a suspension of his own. Any positive momentum from Villa's breathtaking draw with Chelsea was eliminated in the home loss to Sunderland and while the team was victorious in their FA Cup match against Sheffield United it would be a bit overly optimistic to label their performance in that game as impressive.
Birmingham should field close to their strongest side in this match with the only notable absence being Scott Dann while Villa are missing two of their most important players. Birmingham's performance has fallen off from last season and their last result was a disappointing loss to a West Ham team that is currently an absolute mess, but their previous league result was an impressive victory against Blackpool and their opening FA Cup match was an absolute thumping of Millwall. They've been a difficult side to beat at home, losing only twice in ten league games, and I don't think any of us need reminding of what happened the last time Villa visited St. Andrews.
On paper, things don't look all that promising. And yet, I am confident. It's true that Villa didn't exactly set the world on fire against Sheffield United, but they didn't exactly play their best XI either. The loss to Sunderland was a huge disappointment, but Villa were by far the better side until Heskey's sending off and the goal that eventually gave the Black Cats three points was an absolute, fair-play-to-you stunner. Even when down to ten men and trailing by a goal Villa were able to mount a pretty formidable attack late on in the going and if not for some better fortune they very easily could have salvaged a draw at the very least. The Chelsea match was a fantastic performance. The overall point here is that Villa have looked much, much better of late and as the previously injured regulars continue to return to fitness and integrate themselves back into the squad the performances have improved.
There's a tendency in many facets of our lives to view things only in terms of results, and that's truer in sports than in anything else. But it's not especially honest either and it certainly doesn't give the most accurate representation of the facts that are needed to inform decisions and opinions going forward. We don't really have the tools to analyze performance as well as we'd like (at least not yet) so all of this is of course open to interpretation, but it is my opinion that Villa are actually a somewhat decent side at the moment. They're nowhere near good, but if the season started tomorrow I'd probably expect them to end up somewhere near the top half of the table. Birmingham City? Not so much (although I think a lot of that is up to Alex McLeish because there is a reasonable amount of talent in their squad.)
Don't get me wrong; I do not think that Villa are vastly superior to Birmingham City, nor do I think they should necessarily be regarded as heavy favorites tomorrow. Birmingham are quite good at preventing the other team from scoring goals and on the occasion that they are able to carve out some sort of an attack, they usually come out ahead. They just don't do that very often, and while Young and Heskey are clearly going to be missed tomorrow I think that Villa are good enough to unlock Birmingham's back four (especially with Dann missing in action.) Villa's problem hasn't been that they are universally terrible; it's been their inconsistency. They looked tremendous against Manchester United, Chelsea, Blackpool and they've looked solid on numerous other occasions. If Villa show up tomorrow and play as well as they are capable, they're going to win.
Of course there is no guarantee of that happening. Bad Villa could just as easily walk out of St. Andrews with their tails between their legs and their dip into the relegation zone looking far more serious. Or mediocre Villa could show up and carve out and uninspiring, largely unhelpful draw. But I've decided that, for once, I am going to be confident and really what better time is there than before this game? Aston Villa desperately need a win, Birmingham City are imminently beatable and beating Birmingham City is awesome. I could sit around being terrified or I could expect the boys to go in there and come out with all three points. No sense in the former. At least that's what I am telling myself.
A few notes:
- Numerous outlets are reporting that it is expected that John Carew will start tomorrow for Villa. Assuming he's not the only one up top, I'm fine with this; Carew was awful early in the season but having a big target in the area makes Villa's attack far more dangerous, even if he isn't all that effective. This might be Carew's last game with the club and though this season has been a disaster I still have a lot of affection for the big man and I'd love nothing more to see him go out on top with a great performance.
- Stephen Ireland is not expected to be available after picking up a knee injury in training. He most likely wouldn't have played in any case, but now it's official. Can we loan him to a crappy league or a mental hospital or something already? He can't have completely forgotten how to play football but the guy has clearly upset some sort of deity or and needs to atone.
- A win for Villa tomorrow would give them 24 points on the season and vault them into 14th. A win for Birmingham would bring them level with Everton and no lower than 13th, depending on goal difference. Plenty of people have talked about how tight the league is right now, but it bears repeating: things are absolutely nuts. Villa could not have picked a worse season to have this drop-off because in a normal year I don't think there's any way they'd be lower than 15th at any point based on their performance so far. I don't think Villa will get relegated, but if things stay like this there's a very good chance that a legitimate Premier League caliber team will.
Three points boys. Anything less is kind of a disaster.