Well, here we are. Smack-dab in the middle of a bona-fide relegation battle. It wasn't supposed to come to this; it shouldn't have come to this. But it has. With three games remaining, Aston Villa has just a three point cushion between themselves and the Championship. Assuming Bolton manage to take full points from their game in hand, that cushion shrinks to two points. Villa have some things in their favor; of the teams still in plausible danger of the drop, they have the most points, the best goal differential and one of the less imposing schedules (which, crucially, contains no true six-pointers.) They are truly in control of their own destiny.
That should be encouraging, but if the general sense of dread surrounding the next three weeks is any indication, it isn't at all encouraging. This is a team in which most everyone has completely lost faith, and many are treating relegation as something of a foregone conclusion. That's understandable, in a way, but I'm beginning to think that it's not especially logical. The Bolton loss was absolutely crushing and really the impetus for the current mood amongst Villa supporters, but one game in and of itself isn't indicative of a larger trend. In looking at their performances over the past month, I'm not entirely sure it's fair to say that Villa is really even in all that poor a run of form.
While it's true that Villa haven't won a game since March 10th, it's important to take the competition into account. There was a 4-2 loss to Chelsea which doesn't come close to telling the whole story as Villa very nearly snatched a point after going down 2-0; the back-to-back draws to Liverpool and Stoke were frustrating due to leads being surrendered late in the going, but neither performance was unflattering; the United result was unpleasant and unflattering, but not unexpected; the Sunderland 0-0 was a snoozer but a decent enough result against a good team; and the loss to Bolton was in large part so frustrating because Villa were so dominant for such a large portion of the game and couldn't finish their chances.
While it's true that style points don't count in the table and that taking these games in isolation distorts the larger picture, it's important to point out that the current meme that Aston Villa is hopelessly awful and will only escape the drop with the help of the clubs below them isn't really based on an honest assessment. It's perfectly reasonable to fall into doom-and-gloom mode given the current state of things and it would be hypocritical of me to chastise others for being pessimistic about things, but from a rational point of view there's no reason to think Villa are incapable of taking four points from these final three games, a feat that would almost certainly see them end the season clear of the relegation zone. That doesn't mean that's what's going to happen, but analytically there's no reason to think it's anything approaching a pipe dream. And not only would a win against the Baggies go a long long way to regulating the blood pressure of Villa fans, there's even some reason to be cautiously (and I do mean cautiously) optimistic.
Now, clearly West Brom is a better team than Aston Villa, as painful as that may be for me to put into writing. They're 10th in the table, nine points clear of Villa and fresh off a 1-0 win at Anfield. But it's reasonable to say that they're on the opposite end of the "mediocre" spectrum rather than in an altogether separate class. This is a beatable team that shares many of Villa's shortcomings, and with both the drop and the European places out of reach it's not as though they're playing for a whole lot; I'm inclined to believe that the "apathy effect" is wildly overstated in its importance, but I'm not at all inclined to believe that it isn't some kind of a factor. Will the Baggies be considered favorites? Sure, and rightfully so, especially given that the game is taking place at the Hawthorns. But no one should be at all surprised if Villa manages to sneak away with full points.
The first half against Bolton didn't amount to much (well, to anything) but it's impossible to deny that Villa looked quite good (relative to Villa, at least.) Part of their failure to score is down to the fact that they simply aren't especially good at finishing, but part of it is also down to pure dumb luck. If you're able to consistently threaten as often as Villa did against Bolton in the first half, more often than not you'll score goals (multiple!) even in the case of this team. They've shown that it's something they're capable of doing, and it was the loss of focus rather than the tactical approach that cost them that game. Maybe that happens again, but maybe they learned something on Tuesday. There's no point in worrying about that now, because it's not relevant until after the fact.
Villa can't worry about anything other than winning. They need to come out and attack, they need to maintain focus, and they need to avoid stupid errors in possession and in defense. Aston Villa is not a good team. But there's far too much talent on this team for me to accept that relegation is in any way understandable. No excuses. Anything other than a win in this game is a failure, and if that's not fair in the isolated sense it's more than fair in terms of the bigger picture. Their failures (and these are shared failures; while the responsibility ultimately falls to McLeish for a good chunk of this mess, he's not kicked a ball all season) haven't given them any room to complain about fairness.
I'm not spending much time talking about West Brom for a reason; they're largely irrelevant in my mind. They are a team Villa can conceivably beat, and so Villa has to beat them. Simple as that. I'd like to think that I'm generally quite good at finding reason for optimism even when the results don't go the right way, but it's past the point of moral victories. You've forced me to consider results-based analysis the only acceptable option, Aston Villa, and that reason alone is enough for me to be angry at you.