After a strong November which saw Aston Villa take 8 points from 4 games, December started off on the right foot with an away win against a good Southampton team. With a struggling Fulham and (relatively) ordinary United side on tap, things were shaping up very well for Villa; at 19 points, closing out the calendar year with safety all but assured and a top-half finish a distinct possibility. Instead, Villa went out and put in two pretty poor performances, allowing the bottom table sides to creep up and seeing their goal difference slip from even to -5. There are still three winnable games left in 2013, beginning with today's trip to face Stoke City. But unless Villa can find the form that propelled them to success in November, the New Year could bring with it some old and familiar anxieties.
If we've learned anything about Aston Villa this season, it's that it's a bit pointless not to take things one game at a time. Even during the team's best runs of results the performances have been wildly uneven, and some of the best football Villa have played has come in losing efforts. To say that Villa have been inconsistent would be a dramatic understatement, and to some extent that isn't especially surprising; it's a young team, still grasping for an identity. That Christian Benteke has been injured and/or ineffective for the majority of the season certainly hasn't helped matters. But it does make things quite frustrating to see a team that will on one day appear ready to break into the top eight flail about miserably on another for no discernable reason.
Stoke City is in roughly the same place, table-wise, as Villa, but they've not been nearly so varied in their level of performance. The Potters have racked up their 18 points in a fairly predictable fashion, and you know pretty much what you're going to get every time out. Mark Hughes has his side playing something much closer to attractive football than they played under Tony Pulis, but this is still a team that tries to win games by keeping scores low and managing the game well. They are as always a tough team to play against, and with Villa having been held scoreless in two straight and seven of their last ten, things looks even more arduous.
The harsh reality is that until Benteke manages to click-which may not happen until he's fully recovered from an injury that may still be suffering from-it's tough to see Villa managing to mark a consistently credible threat. There will be games such as the one against Southampton where nearly every chance is converted, or the one against West Brom where goals come from midfield, but depending on either of those isn't really a viable strategy with this team. Though Libor Kozak, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann are all capable of scoring at any given time, none of them bring the kind of threat an in-form Benteke poses. The need for opposing defenses to focus on Benteke was a big part of the reason Villa's other attacking players were able to flourish down the stretch last season. With the big man posing less of a threat in recent weeks, it's easier to neutralize everyone else.
Eventually, Benteke will get back to being his old self, but it's impossible to predict when that's going to be. And against a team like Stoke, who are stingy against even the Premier League's best teams, it's a difficult position to be in. There's not really any reason to be pessimistic about the outcome; Villa's been pretty good defensively this season, and Stoke's been even worse at scoring goals than their opposition. A 0-0 or 1-1 result in this game seems likely, and a point from the Britannia is a decent enough result. But with three tough games in one week, a thin squad, and some teams below Villa showing some real improvement of late, a sign that Villa's talisman is getting back to normal would be a very festive occasion indeed.