I'm going to go out on a limb here; Aston Villa will not be favored to take a point from this game. I know, I know, I'm a terrible fan for even thinking that. But I just can't shake the feeling that Manchester City is the better side, especially given the questionable fitness of Marc Albrighton, Gabby Agbonlahor and James Collins - not to mention the potential doghouse-dwelling of Stephen Ireland and Charles N'Zogbia. From as objective a standpoint I can manage, I feel pretty comfortable saying that City's second team would probably beat Villa's first team eight times out of ten.
But! The nice thing about being the heavy underdog is that it's nearly impossible for it to lead to disappointment. I mean, no matter how bad things get this can't be worse than the day Newcastle had at White Hart Lane, can it? (Don't answer that.) And though absurd levels of confidence are almost mandatory for professional footballers, so too is a certain pragmatism. I don't worry that a loss (even a lopsided one) in this game would be as big a risk to derailing the progress that's been made this season in the same way a loss to Wolves or Wigan might. Knocking on wood and assuming Villa make it through this game with no major injuries or additional player/manager blow-ups, this game is pretty much all upside.
And the upside is in fact pretty stellar. In the mind of most, I'd say this game has been chalked up as a loss for Villa for quite some time now; picking up an unexpected point or three would go a long way towards atoning for some of the disappointing results the team has had over the past month or so. And as good as City is, it's not as though dropping points to a team of Villa's caliber would be somehow unprecedented; Fulham and West Brom both held them to a draw and Sunderland managed to nick all three points. It's also unlikely we'll see a 100% full-strength City side from the start, as they've got a mid-week Europa league match against a very good Porto side at Estádio do Dragão to think about. It's an overstatement to say City is vulnerable, but while there's never a good time to play a team of this caliber this a better time than most.
In my estimation, there are two major stories coming into this game and one has nothing at all to do with what's going to take place on the pitch. There's that whole protest business that's set to happen, and how that affects the atmosphere inside Villa Park will be interesting to say the least. It's not a pleasant situation, but whether anyone likes it or not it's potentially an important one. The other is, frankly, of far more interest to me; I'm far more curious than normal to see how Alex McLeish approaches this game from a tactical perspective. What he does with Ireland and N'Zogbia is obviously of great importance, but the approach is more in the realm of what I'm talking about. City is the kind of team that it would be defensible to play a more negative style against, but Villa's been at their best by far when taking the game to the opposition. Is the risk of the game being over early worth abandoning what's been a pretty successful approach? I don't think that it is, but I certainly think a compelling case could be made that's in disagreement with that stance. I'm intrigued to see how it all plays out.
Realistically, the odds of getting anything from this game are low. But that doesn't mean that nothing good can come from it even if defeat is the outcome. And if it's not? Well, those protesters are going to look pretty stupid.