There's yet again an air of uncertainty hanging over Villa Park in the wake of the news that Gerard Houllier is unlikely to return to managerial duties this season, leaving his future with the club in doubt. Gary McAllister will take control of the club in Houllier's absence and it's unlikely we'll see much in the way of change where tactics or selection are concerned, but seeing as how Villa have responded to turmoil this season it's enough to make one uneasy heading into the final month of the season. Luckily for the mental health of collective Villa-dom it appears as though the club is safe from relegation fears, but a strong finish would be a very lovely thing indeed and it given their respective track records I trust Houllier to guide the team towards victory more than I do McAllister. All due respect to the caretaker gaffer, he hasn't exactly set the world on fire in his managerial career. While it's certainly possible that he's learned some things since his last go-round, until he's demonstrated them in practice I think it's reasonable to err on the side of caution where my enthusiasm is concerned. Of course this season has also taught me never to expect anything that the worst.
Stoke aren't a side that strikes hear in the hearts of many (although they likely strike fear in the ankles of all) but they haven't been an easy task for many teams this season. Despite their current position in the table they haven't been embarrassed often and they absolutely demolished a quality Bolton team 5-0 in the FA Cup semi-final, a result that absolutely no one in their right mind would have predicted. Stoke are what they are; a very direct, very physical team that like to keep the ball in the air and strike from set pieces. Tony Pulis makes no apologies for the team's style, and to their credit it has served them fairly well. To their detriment it is awful to watch from a neutral perspective and infuriating to watch when it's being employed against your team. Villa's 2-1 loss at the Britannia earlier this year was the side's early season struggles personified; despite being the far better side the entire game, shoddy defending saw Stoke level 79 minutes in and then grab the winner deep into stoppage time. Villa should have won, but Stoke are all about not making mistakes and capitalizing on those of their opponents and luckily for them, early-season Villa made a whole lot of them.
Luckily for Villa, Stoke's record away from the Britannia has been abysmal, thrashing of Bolton at the Reebok aside; in thirteen away games, Stoke have won three, drawn one and lost twelve. Looking at the split between home and away points is enough to make all of the "Could Messi do what he does on a cold night at the Britannia?" jokes slightly less ridiculous (but only slightly.) Villa's record at Villa Park has been quite strong by comparison, and given those factors and their improved play of late there are plenty of reasons for optimism. Of course with this being Villa, there are an equal number of reasons for pessimism; Stoke are just a team that it's impossible to feel entirely comfortable playing and they've been in very good form lately. There's also the matter of John Carew, the former Villa striker being eligible to play in this contest in contrast to the general rule of loaned players not seeing the pitch against their parent club. If Carew's problems towards the end of his stint with Villa were in part due to motivation, there's reason to suspect that he won't have similar troubles tomorrow.
If Villa can dictate the pace of this match and penetrate Stoke's bunker (and Ryan Shawcross doesn't murder anyone,) they'll win. Pretty simple really; Villa are very talented and where they are weak, Stoke's opposite numbers aren't especially strong. Avoid getting caught up in head-tennis wars, avoid committing stupid fouls in dangerous areas and take advantage of your own scoring opportunities. Aston Villa is a better team than Stoke and they're playing at home. They should win. But 'should' hasn't always meant 'will' for this Aston Villa side, and two games are not enough to convince me that this team's days of being horrifically disappointing aren't behind them.
But then again, if there's on thing reading what I've written this season should have taught you, it's them I am a very pessimistic person.