Seven games remain in Aston Villa's season, and in case you hadn't noticed they're in need of winning at least a few of them. The good news is that, over the past few months, Villa's looked like a side that's far too good to go down. The bad news, of course, is that over the preceding eight months, they looked every bit a team that was headed for relegation. Whether they've got enough in the tank to overcome what was for the most part an horrific season remains to be seen, but how they fare against Stoke City could serve as a decent litmus test.
The days of asking whether this is the best Stoke City side of the current era are petty well behind us at this point. After a strong start that made it look as though the Potters had taken a real step forward, 2013 has been brutal to the club. Their last win came on February 9th against Reading, and since the new year they've won just once, drawn just twice, and lost eight. At the start of the year the Potters were 8th in the league and within reach of a Europa League place; they're now 13th (thanks only, perhaps, to the lack of quality in the bottom half of the Premier League) and within reach of the relegation places. It's difficult to imagine Stoke being relegated after looking so formidable for more than half of the season, and it is indeed unlikely. But that this conversation can even be had speaks to the difficulties they've had over the past three months.
The problem, as it so often is, has been an inability to score goals. It's tough to win when scoring just six goals in eleven games, and even when Aston Villa's attack was at its most anemic it never had difficulties of the severity the Potters have endured this season. What Stoke does have--that Aston Villa most certainly does not--is a reasonably competent defense. They've endured a few lickings this season, but they came at the hands of teams with far more firepower than Aston Villa. And at home, they've shown themselves to be incredibly resolute. Only three teams have allowed fewer goals to their visitors, and Stoke's record would look quite a bit better if not for a severe thumping at the hands of Chelsea (a feeling Villa know all too well.)
Realistically, these two teams probably aren't far apart in terms of quality right now. All but the most stubborn fatalists would claim that Aston Villa hasn't made tremendous strides over the past few months, and a compelling case could be made that this team as currently comprised would likely survive the season in relative comfort. For Stoke's part, they probably weren't ever as good as it might have once appeared, but their actual talent level is almost certainly higher than it's looked in 2013. Stoke will certainly have an edge thanks to their superior quality at home; on the other side of the table, Christian Benteke will provide a challenge that could be a bit tougher for the Potters to deal with than their usual level of competition.
If Villa's defense can avoid any serious mistakes and Benteke, Andreas Weiman, and the rest of Villa's attacking players can manage to put Stoke's defense under some pressure, they'll have a real chance. But those are all very big ifs. With these two sides, a draw seems all but a given. It's happened the last four times they've met, and given how many points these two teams have split in their other games over the past few years, that shouldn't come as much surprise. And where Villa's concerned, that's far from the worst result in the world. But with Wigan facing a very beatable QPR and Sunderland a risk to gain an upset at Stamford Bridge thanks to a boost in morale from the arrival of new manager Paolo Di Canio, taking all three points from what is a legitimately winnable game would be a tremendous boost to Villa's hopes.