Aston Villa travel to Blackpool on Saturday for a match that seems more about a trip to the seashore than a battle for points, despite the fact that the two clubs sit just a point apart, with neither truly assured yet of avoiding relegation (gulp). In fact, Gabriel Agbonlahor confessed to being afraid of the "Big One," Europe's biggest roller coaster, before admitting that he was a bit daunted by the atmosphere of Bloomfield Road. Let's hope the focus is more on match preparation than walking the promenade.
The Tangerines have lost the last five of their matches, which to some will be viewed as a sure sign Villa will win. I, with my eternal pessimistic streak, believe it means Blackpool are due to take some points and there's no way Villa will leave with all three. However, I'll do my best to keep everyone's spirits up.
In positive news, the Villa have no new injuries to report, except a mention that Chris Herd is doubtful due to a calf strain (incidentally, if he needs nursing, I can hop a plane like that). Blackpool's current first choice goalkeeper, Paul Rachubka, suffered an injury in training, so they'll be recalling Richard Kingson, with Matt Gilks having been injured for ages.
In less happy news, everything I've read says Stiliyan Petrov is set to start alongside Jean Makoun, apparently based on the fact that this will be his 150th Premier League appearance for Villa. It certainly can't be based on watching Petrov's play recently. Let's all cross our fingers that Gerard Houllier isn't big on sentiment and doesn't insist on giving the captain another full run out. I may not have been convinced that Michael Bradley would be a regular starter when the Villa brought him on, but after watching Petrov's last two games, and realizing Makoun is definitely more of a distributor than a holding midfielder, it seems Bradley should get the start sooner rather than later.
(Pause while I mourn for Barry Bannan)
Darren Bent, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing are all set to start on Saturday, given that their international friendly was played in Copenhagen rather than the mire of Wembley, while Gabby's "personal reasons" have melted away and he'll either start or be off throwing up after riding the roller coaster. The back line will likely still contain Richard Dunne and James Collins, with Houllier urging both Carlos Cuellar and the fans to be patient over the Spaniard's ascension to the permanent starting XI. With Stephen Warnock on the permanent naughty list and Luke Young still in the shop for repairs, it'll likely be Kyle Walker and Ciaran Clark at fullback, unless Houllier gets nervous of Blackpool's attacking ways and puts Cuellar in for Walker. But that seems doubtful.
My best guess (keep in mind that whenever I write these things, Houllier comes along to check, laughs, and pulls some odd lineup out of a lottery ball). Please don't shoot the messenger. My guess does not mean I actively approve of these choices:
Friedel / Clark - Dunne - Collins - Walker / Agbonlahor - Bradley - Makoun - Downing / Young / Bent
One more thing to keep an eye on tomorrow: the interplay between Houllier and Ian Holloway. After the war of words over Charlie Adam, both have done their best to try to smooth relations before the match. But is anyone really convinced that these two have buried the hatchet?