When the most compelling thing about a game is the return of a player to a stadium in which he called home for just two-and-a-half years (and hasn't called home for nine months) you can be fairly certain that the action on the field doesn't hold a great deal of promise. We've all seen enough of Villa to know what we're in for so there's not a lot of sense talking about it, but Sunderland hasn't been all that much better. It's been a fairly rapid fall for Steve Bruce's men, certainly not helped by Bent's departure but clearly not fully explained by it either. The losses of Jordan Henderson Anton Ferdinand, Steed Malbranque and Asamoah Gyan haven't helped matters, and beyond the loss of talent there's just a general sense of disarray in the side these days. Despite the difference in points the Black Cats have been slightly better in most regards than Villa, but that's not really much of a measuring stick and Steve Bruce can't be feeling especially secure these days.
To me personally, there's not much that's compelling about the Darren Bent angle. I probably wouldn't much care for Bent were I a Sunderland fan but these things happen in professional sports. Bent saw Villa as a better opportunity (and if rumor is to be believed so, crucially, did Fabio Capello) and chose to move on. The odds are good that he'll be doing the same to Villa at some point in the near-ish future unless he starts getting better service. The silliest thing one can ever do is take these things personally (with some exceptions of course) and though I don't begrudge the boo-birds that are sure to be out in force their opinions and right to express them I just can't really find it in me to care. It's a mild distraction at best and the audible abuse will likely subside at some point near the half-hour mark. Besides, it's tough for me to find much interest in the sentimental (where sports are concerned at least) when I'm not the one experiencing those emotions.
For me, this game is far more important than how 48,000 or so
Tynesiders Wearsiders (Ed: my bad) react to the return of a man they see as a villain; it's at least some measure of how far Villa have fallen since the Martin O'Neill era (and please do not take that as some sort of pining for a departed hero, it's simply the easiest way to mark the shift in fortunes.) Villa did of course lose both games to Sunderland last season, but last season barely seems to count any more. Villa had a whole summer to find their manager, a man to whom they seem committed for the foreseeable future, and I think it's fair to say that the club's performances this season are a bit more indicative of what to expect going forward than the relative uncertainty of last. In better days, Sunderland wasn't necessarily a club Villa always took three points from, but in general it was reasonable to expect them to do so. Now, even with Sunderland reeling and looking somewhat weakened, it's far more difficult to say that's the case.
It's not so much that Sunderland looks like a team Villla can't beat. It's just that in games such as these, where there's not an obvious talent advantage in Villa's favor, it's hard to muster the necessary confidence to believe they will. For me at least; your methods may vary and all. But it's tough to deny that don't ever look much like scoring (despite ranking somewhere in the middle of the league in that category) and though their defensive performance this season has been an improvement things still aren't tight enough at the back that clean sheets seem especially likely either. Villa isn't especially terrible at anything but they're not very good at anything either, and with that being the case it's difficult to expect a whole lot from any game. That's not to say Villa will never win or be exciting or bring us joy; it's just that, on any given day, it's not something I go into games expecting.
Realistically, many of the same things could be said about Sunderland. Which, I suppose, is my point. Sunderland has slipped, but so have Villa. And with no offense to Sunderland, Villa have fallen a bit further. It wasn't so long ago that wins against clubs of their standing were expected, mere speed bumps along the road to Champions League contention; now they're hoped for as a buffer against the threat of any serious relegation trouble. This isn't me trying to be depressing, but it's the reality; Villa is in a position where the competition they need to be measuring themselves against isn't Spurs, Liverpool or Arsenal but instead clubs the likes of which they'll be competing this afternoon.
And with that being the case, this is a pretty big game. We've talked plenty about how much more difficult things are going to get for Villa over the next two months, and losing against a poor West Brom team at home last week increases the pressure to start earning results. Things have changed, but that doesn't mean this season has to be a drab and miserable slog. It can still be fun, so long as we can adjust to changed expectations (myself quite clearly included.) But at a certain point, Villa have got to remind us of that.