After 34 games played last season, Aston Villa sat 17th in the Premier League table. An uptick in form that began in February pulled them from the relegation zone and generally bolstered the case that the side would see a 22nd consecutive Premier League season, but Villa's standing in the league was far from secure as they hosted fellow relegation battlers Sunderland under the Monday night lights at Villa Park in a massive six-pointer. Andi Weimann struck first just after the half-hour mark, but Danny Rose's equalizer just seconds later brought a familiar sense of dread to Villa Supporters the world over. But Weimann would notch another within five minutes, Christian Benteke would bag a hat trick straight out of halftime, and Gabby Agbonlahor would put a late cap on the day. The 6-1 win brought the level of volume inside Villa Park to levels not often matched in recent years, and though it would take a win over Norwich City the following weekend to secure safety, at the end of the night it was fairly clear that the claret and blue would live to fight another day.
Fast forward seven months later. Though it's still very early, it appears as though Aston Villa have taken a step forward this season, notching some surprise wins over the top sides and grinding out points in a manner that would have seemed impossible this time last season against everyone else. The margins are still thin, but Villa's five point cushion over the relegation zone feels like the Grand Canyon compared to years past, especially given the way they've achieved their results thus far. There's still a great deal of work to be done before anyone feels comfortable with this side on any given day, but in a general sense it very much feels as though this is a club headed in the right direction. Where Sunderland is concerned, however, the picture is not nearly so rosy. The Mackems sit dead last in the Premier League with just two wins and one draw, their -16 goal difference (through 12 games, it should be noted) the division's worst tally.
The Paolo Di Canio experiment was shown very early on this season to be every bit as ridiculous as it seemed at the time, and though the side's form under Gus Poyet has been significantly better that's a such a relative statement that it means very little. If Di Canio's Sunderland were a trainwreck, Poyet's Sunderland have at best been a tire fire. And though there are many reasons to believe the new man in charge is better equipped than his predecessor to right the ship at the Stadium of Light, it's clear that there's still much work to do before Sunderland fans can breathe easily.
That's not to say that the Black Cats don't have the talent to survive in the Premier League; this is a solid squad, and their two wins over Newcastle and Manchester City show that they're capable of putting together winning performances against any team in the league on the right day. Fabio Borini, Steven Fletcher, Sebastian Larsson and Jozy Altidore-who, despite beginning his professional career in 1971, is just 24 years old-are very capable of punishing teams, while a back line that's at the very least mediocre on paper is nowhere near as bad as their two-goals-allowed-per-game average might indicate. As genuinely bad as Sunderland have looked, it's difficult to believe that their current rut is sustainable.
Clearly, Villa fans will expect three points from this game, and it's an entirely reasonable expectation indeed. Despite underperforming relative to the talent on their roster and recent signs that things are on the verge of improving, this is not a good team. Bottom of the table sides with just one point away from home are teams that Aston Villa should expect to beat on their own pitch. But here's the thing; Sunderland fans are looking at their recent form and Aston Villa's record to this point and coming to the conclusion that this may very well be a game that they can win. And what's more, they're far from crazy for coming to said conclusion. Villa's an improved side, but they're still very much a side with weaknesses than can be readily exploited. Aston Villa may be the favored side, but in a league with margins to thin as this one, a clash with a side like Sunderland should come complete with an enormous, flashing warning sign.
Villa's a better team than Sunderland, and this is a game they should be expected to win. And the distinction between "game they'll expect to win" and "game they should be expected to win" is an important one. It really looks like this team has taken that all-important first step from relegation battlers to mid-table anonymity; have they really? We're most likely not going to know for several months, but failing to take all three in this one wouldn't do much for anyone's confidence.