Aston Villa travel to the Eastlands tomorrow afternoon to take on Manchester City with the prize being a home game against Reading in the quarter-finals of the FA Cup. Nothing can be taken for granted in a cup competition, but it's difficult to ask for an easier path to the semi-finals and a trip to Wembley than that. And given Villa's place in the table, an FA Cup victory is really their only realistic remaining hope for European qualification, not to mention a chance to one-up their Bluenosed neighbors.
The optimistic Villa fan will tell you that while the club's last trip to the City of Manchester Stadium ended horribly, that was in the before-time; this is a different Aston Villa, finally showing their potential and as of late playing with a swagger that's been missing for the better part of a year. The same certainly can't be said for Manchester City; their last Premier League game was a 1-1 home draw to Fulham. It was a fitting end to a less than stellar January (at least on the Premier League front) with a 3-0 defeat of West Brom being the only highlight amongst the lows of a 2-2 draw to Birmingham City and a 2-1 loss to Manchester United. All told, City have managed just 12 points of a possible 24 in 2011, not a disaster for most teams but surely a huge disappointment for this one. They entered January as legitimate title contenders and must now gaze nervously over their shoulders at Chelsea and Tottenham Hotspur, both within three points of their 50. They'll also be without several key players in Vincent Kompany, Nigel DeJong and Adam Johnson, and David Silva and Micah Richards are both questionable and in any case not fully fit. Most importantly, Villa has shown they're capable of beating this team. So why not be optimistic.Oh, there are a few reasons. Notably, Aston Villa will have some pretty big absences of their own to deal with; James Collins, Carlos Cuellar and Nathan Baker are all out, meaning Villa's available defenders are Richard Dunne, Ciaran Clark, Kyle Walker, Luke Young and Stephen Warnock (assuming the latter two are still in fact among the living.) That makes Villa's 1-0 victory (which took place at Villa Park and not the Eastlands, it should be noted) slightly less encouraging; if you'll remember, a huge key to Villa's success in that game was due to a tremendous performance by the defense which was composed entirely of center backs. Villa couldn't do that tomorrow even if they wanted to, and the likely starters at the full back positions-Kyle Walker and Fabian Delph-don't do a great deal to inspire confidence against an attack as potent as Manchester City's. Jean Makoun, serving the second of a three-match ban, will also be a huge miss in the middle of the park.
There's also the fact that cup games are different; City are often less than stellar in the league because of Roberto Mancini's conservative approach, but a lot of that goes out the window in a knockout competition. There's a tremendous amount of attacking talent in this Manchester City squad and when fully unleashed it's a bit terrifying to behold. Look at some of their recent results in knockout competitions; 3-0 against Aris Saloniki in the Europa League, or 5-0 against Notts County in the previous round of the FA Cup. Bear in mind as well that both of these results came on the heels of less-than-satisfying results against he team they were handed to, so perhaps that 1-0 victory that put a huge wrench in City's title hopes won't do Villa many favors after all.
With that said, this game isn't a lost cause; few games are at this level, and Villa's play of late has been legitimately inspiring. But if Villa hope to have a prayer, they have to go on the offensive early. Ordinarily the approach in a game such as this might be to set up shop and play for the draw and a replay back at Villa Park, but his back line is simply not strong enough to withstand a consistent onslaught If they can hold out long enough for Villa to force City to play back on their heels a bit, there's a chance in this game. Villa can run with anyone and with Darren Bent in the fold they have a legitimately dangerous scorer to go with all of their speed. (It's too bad he'll be watching from the stands, but hey, Ashley Young is pretty quick, right?) But they've got to put their mark on things early on, because if City is allowed to take control, well, the chances of them letting go just don't seem very promising.