Winning-even one game, at home, against a team you should beat-changes the way you feel about things. This time last week I was nervously staring at the table, biting my lip in concentration as though I could just the reality of the situation through sheer force of will. I was convinced that a loss was likely and I was further convinced that a loss would almost certainly seal Aston Villa's fate. In retrospect both of those opinions seem silly, but at the time they seemed coldly rational. Fast forward to 11:00 AM Sunday and I was convinced that Aston Villa were going to finish the season with 51 points and safely within the top half. (Or if not convinced, giddy enough to fool myself into believing that I was.)
All that after a narrow victory that should have been far easier, in which Villa executed as well as they have in months and played a solid fundamental game of football but which was sorely lacking in anything approaching special moments, good enough for a 1-0 victory over a Newcastle side that is respectable at full-strength, something they were far from being on Sunday. A good win, certainly; they're all good wins at this point. But it wasn't necessarily all that impressive. Play like that and you'll win more often than you'll lose, but it won't always be all that exciting. Or at least the process won't. The end result? Well, that's plenty exciting. In my case, my outlook was completely shifted. Where the emotional element of sports are concerned, I'm just a tad bipolar.
I bring all of this up because what that win bought Aston Villa was a license to be less successful in games like this week's. A loss to West Ham isn't a good thing, but it's not going to be the end of the world either. The closest any of the bottom three can get is to within two points. Uncomfortable? Of course. But not to a degree to which we shouldn't already be familiar. From a rational perspective, Newcaslte (even at home) was one of the few remaining games where a point would have been perfectly acceptable. Given the way the rest of the week's results panned out, a loss wouldn't have been near the disaster I predicted. When your principal goal is survival, winning games that aren't necessarily those that you feel ought to be a guaranteed three points buys precious breathing room, making games like tomorrow's-against a poor but dangerous West Ham side-less grave in their consequences should things go wrong. That's not to say losing to West Ham would be something most Villa fans would be likely to shrug off, myself included. Recent form aside, this isn't an especially good team. But what they are is capable of pushing teams-even the best teams-to their very limit. They're also desperate to survive, and though Villa's quality is likely enough to keep them afloat, that's something I never saw in them even when things were at their worst. I don't believe it's a lack of desire or indifference; I just think that's it's not something anyone expected to have to deal with and when things got right down to it, it's not something anyone was prepared to deal with. Teams that know they're likely relegation fodder from the get go aren't generally prone to becoming as dispirited as teams that expect to compete for the Champions League when they find themselves in a fight to avoid the drop.
The point then is that West Ham away is a dangerous fixture. This is a better side that the one Villa beat 3-0 the first day of the season and it's probably fair to say that this is a worse Villa side, at least in some respects if not in terms of absolute talent. They've hit a rough patch after an extended run of good form that saw them climb out of the basement, and it's tempting to look at their last two results which they've lost a combined 2-7 and think that they've run out of gas. That may be true, but I'd prefer to wait and see before I go around broadcasting that to be my belief. There are some very fine players on this team (though one of their best, Scott Parker, is unlikely to play due to an Achilles injury) and on their day they can be an absolute handful in the attack. They don't score heaps of goals, but they're capable of creating lots of pressure and keeping the opposition on their back foot, something that's been a recipe for disaster for Aston Villa this season.
And that's going to be the key. Villa can't beat themselves. If the defense is as organized and sharp as they looked against Newcastle the counter will be a real weapon. If they're as sloppy as they've looked at other times this year we could see something like the Bolton game. I don't think that anyone who has been watching this year would predict West Ham to take points from Villa is Villa are at their best, but they've so rarely been at their best that it's almost impossible to guess which version will show up. Are Collins and Dunne back to their castle-wall like partnership of last season, or are we in for more clown-shoesery at the back? I've given up trying to figure it out because there seems to be absolutely no rhyme or reason to which team takes to the pitch on any given day.
A loss wouldn't extinguish hope, but it would certainly erase the positive feelings from last week and put every ounce of the pressure taken off right back on Aston Villa's collective back. But a win would be something pretty massive; if 43 points seems like a reasonable total for the guarantee of safety then a win would put the team just three shy and even Aston Villa would have a hard time not finding three points from five games with Stoke, West Brom and Wigan all still to come. But with this team, it's always a guess. The toughest team Aston Villa has had to contend with all season has been Aston Villa. Two in a row wouldn't put all of that behind us, but it would certainly be a pretty nice start.