It's odd to look think about the way I feel going into this game and then to look at the table and see Fulham one point and two spots ahead of Aston Villa. Fulham does not, to me at least, seem as though they pose much of a threat to leave Villa Park with all three points and if I am being honest I'd find anything less than a Villa win to be a pretty major disappointment. Looking at the numbers over the course of the season though, that feeling doesn't necessarily appear to be justified. This is a big test for Villa; based on my (admittedly limited) observation, it seems as though the supporters are for the most part of the opinion that Fulham is a team than can and should be beaten. I'd say that the performances over the past month or so support that belief. Such small sample sizes are a tricky thing though; it would certainly make sense for Villa's play to improve with the additions of Darren Bent and Jean Makoun, as well as the return from injury of several key players, but are we being tricked? Were the the recent solid performances the outlier rather than the first few months of the season? I don't believe so, but I'll admit to having enough doubt that this fixture makes me a bit nervous.
I feel like I've said this a lot so far this year, but this is a key moment in Aston Villa's season. A win puts even more distance between themselves and the bottom of the table, and depending on how weekend's other results there's an outside chance Villa could find themselves back in the top half. A loss or a draw and the already slim hopes of challenging for a spot in Europe fade and it's likely that Villa move right back down to a very uncomfortable part of the table. Equally important is seeing how Villa cope with their loss to Manchester United; Gerard Houllier and the players have said all the right things in the aftermath, but it's impossible to know whether their confidence has been rattled until we see how they respond on the pitch. As we've talked about quite often in the past few weeks, the upcoming run of fixtures is ripe for the plucking of a fair amount of points, but a disappointing result against Fulham would set entirely the wrong tone at the outset.Talent and execution are certainly the most important factors (at least those within the players' control) where results are concerned, but I doubt you'll find many people that would argue against a team's level of confidence playing a role. With that being the case, it's far better to get things kicked off on the right foot than the alternative.
In terms of matchups, Fulham are very much what they are; a standard lower-mid table English team playing a very English style of football with several fairly good players but no great ones. Of the Cottagers' available players, their most dangerous attacker is Clint Dempsey and while the American international is certainly a handful he's not of a class that a competent Premier League defense should be unable to deal with. The key word there is 'competent' as Villa's back line has alternated between looking every bit as fierce as the unit the club rode to the top six last season and looking like something a League Two side would run out. They've been good more often than bad as of late, but they made several slip-ups against Manchester United that a player as opportunistic as Dempsey would almost certainly take advantage of. If the back line can shore itself up, maintain shape and avoid the mental errors that have been their downfall so far this season, I don't see Fulham's attack posing much of a threat. Otherwise we very well may need to see a strong day from the forward players if Villa hope to fulfill the expectations many of us have set out for them in this match.
And the attack is quite another matter. Fulham don't score a lot of goals (their 26 in the league so far this season ahead of only Birmingham City, Wigan and Wolves) but they don't allow all that many either (also 26, good enough for sixth in the league.) Aston Villa haven't been known for lighting up the score sheet in their own right, with only 28 goals to their name (to go along with an eye-poppingly terrible 43 allowed.) We're all hoping that the addition of Darren Bent is going to change all of that, and indeed things have been better since he joined up with Villa putting four past the opposition in the three games that Bent has featured. There's also the matter of Villa's horrifically bad luck early on in the season perhaps starting to swing back their way. With that said, the difference between the worst-case version of Villa and the current version of Villa (in terms of results) has been the jump from outrightly horrible to maybe a tick above mediocre. Many would argue that the attack has looked even better than the results imply (I among them) but much of that has come outside of the final third, and it's precisely there that Villa have struggled all season. I'm fairly confident that the service will continue to improve and, in time, the results will bear out what we've seen over the past few games, but until that happens it has to remain a concern. And while Fulham seem like the kind of team that things could click against, they deserve credit for their ability to prevent the opposition from scoring. Fulham have surrendered three goals or more in league play only twice this season; four to Manchester City at the Eastlands and three to West Ham at Upton Park. A very solid back line anchored by Aaron Hughes and Brede Hangeland coupled with a tactical approach geared towards keeping scores low and a willingness to grind out results make them a tough opponent for any team in the league.
There's also the little matter of Fulham's recent form. After a start to the season almost as disastrous as the one experienced by Aston Villa and a brief period of time spent in the relegation zone, Fulham have been streaking as of late. A hard-luck defeat to Liverpool at Anfield on January 26th is the Cottagers only defeat since January 1st and that same period has seen them pull out several impressive league wins and out-rightly humiliate Tottenham Hotspur 4-0 in the FA Cup. Fulham might not inspire a lot of fear in the hearts of their enemies, but over the past month or so they've been getting the job done far more often than not and the Spurs result shows that they are capable of pulling out a stunner on occasion as well.
This has all the makings of your classic 'trap' game, in which an overconfident team is knocked down a peg by an unassuming but businesslike opponent. I think Villa should win (and I think Villa will win) but it's far from the slam-dunk that a lot of supporters are painting it as. Fulham have never won a Premier League game at Villa Park and it was 1966 the last time they took three points away against Villa in the top flight, but neither of those factors have any bearing on tomorrow's matchup. Fulham aren't the most exciting team in the world, but they're a decent team in excellent form that's just as hungry to move up the table as Villa. As I said at the outset, this is a huge match in regards to our outlook on the rest of the year. It could potentially tell us a whole lot about whether the strides Villa appear to have made are for real as well as their ability to bounce-back from a game that most likely brought them back to earth, if only just a little bit. Win and dreaming upwards doesn't seem all that crazy. Lose and that old, familiar doubt could come creeping right back in.