More than bragging rights at stake as Aston Villa take on West Brom

Steve Bardens

Much attention has been paid to the relative stature of these two sides in recent days, but the chance to move to the top of the table is a much bigger prize than an upper hand in water-cooler talk.

In the build up to this game, one of the big topics of conversation has been about which of Aston Villa and West Brom is the "bigger" club. That's always a fairly silly-if sometimes entertaining-discussion, but in this case the answer seems pretty clear; historically, it's not close. Villa's won a European Cup, they've never been relegated from the Premier League, they have a much larger fanbase and significantly more historical success. But in recent years, it's difficult to argue that the roles haven't shifted. West Brom have finished above Villa two years in a row, and their rise to md-table respectability coupled with the continued struggles of Birmingham City has cranked up the heat on what has always been something of a lesser West Midlands Derby.

But with Villa (seemingly) back on track, there's a chance for them to reclaim their crown as the best team in the West Midlands with a win. Currently sitting just one place behind the Baggies due only to goal difference, three points for Villa would not only push them above their rivals, it would put them in the top half of the table. Villa didn't get their 17th point until their 17th game last season, and at no point were they 7 points clear of the relegation zone. Though we're not quite a third of the way through the season, a win here would demonstrate some very real progress over this point in the last season, and that's without taking into account how much of a nosedive Villa took around the New Year and how much more difficult the slate of games has been this season compared to last.

Of course, we might be getting a bit ahead of ourselves, here. None of the above means a whole lot if Villa don't actually manage to win, and that's clearly no foregone conclusion. West Brom's season has been eerily similar to Villa's, with good performances against top teams, generally close losses, and few outrightly poor showings. Villa's scored one fewer goal than the Baggies, and each has allowed 12, while West Brom have one fewer win but have been better at grinding out draws. Both teams approach the game in a similar fashion, causing most of their trouble on the counter and generally staying quite solid at the back.

In other words, this game is genuinely too close to call. Generally the edge would go to the home side, but Villa's been so much better away from home that it likely cancels out the edge to a large degree. It's probably fair to say that Villa's ever so slightly more talented at the top end, while the Baggies are probably slightly more solid from top-to-bottom. There just isn't very much that separates the two, and it's going to come down to form, execution and luck. That's not the most ground-breaking or exciting analysis, but it's true. It's genuinely too close to call.

Unfortunately for fans of the narrative, the "biggest club in the West Midlands" question won't be settled today. These are two clubs on roughly the exact same level, and whether West Brom manage to turn their current fortunes into long-term sustainable success remains to be seen. That Villa's back to that level is some of the most depressing good news ever, it's still better than the alternative. Derbies are always big games, but because these two sides are so closely matched both on the pitch and in the table, it's even bigger. There's much more at stake than local bragging rights; there's no reason to think that the logjam in the middle of the table that's been so prevalent the past few seasons is going to be changing this year, and three points against a team in the same tier can be massive in terms of final positioning.

So, to wrap it up: big local derby, major implications on mid-table positional jockeying, teams to evenly matched to call either way. In other words, fun stuff. Fun, terrifying stuff.

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