Aston Villa came out of the gates roaring against Stoke City at the Britannia, going ahead thanks to Gabby Agbonlahor just shy of ten minutes in and continuing to dominate the majority of the first hour. As has so often been the case this season however, Villa's inability to make their chances count looked as though it would be their undoing, when Michael Kightly slammed Stoke's second shot on target of the game past Brad Guzan in the 80th minute to bring things level. But in marked contrast to what we've come to expect from this team, Villa fought back from the adversity instead of capitulating. Thanks to Matt Lowton scoring one of the best goals you will ever see in the 87th minute and a stoppage time insurance tally from Christian Benteke, Villa claimed the three points their efforts deserved and are now 16th in the league with six games left to play.
In my eyes, there's no way this game turns out as it does were it being played in early January rather than today. And we've seen that more and more often over the past few months; where letdowns used to be met with panic and collapse, they're now met with composure. Even in defeat to Liverpool last weekend, Villa took things all the way down to the wire, and if not for Steven Gerrard's stunning clearance off the line that game could have ended in a draw. In Villa's last win, on March 16th against QPR, a 73rd minute equalizer from Rangers was overcome thanks to a late winner from Benteke. This team no longer looks resigned to their fate when things go against them, and in comparison to the first two-thirds of the season that's an enormous--and vitally important--change.
It's true that Stoke have been the worst team in the Premier League for all of 2013, and in that light perhaps this win in and of itself doesn't look especially impressive. But it's worth noting that Villa dominated the Potters for all but a window of about ten minutes, and they did so with Benteke having a day that was very poor by his standards. With some better luck and better execution, Villa could have very well been up 3-0 before the half. That they weren't is a sign that there's still much room for improvement, but unless you're resigned to being a fatalist there's just no way you can tell me that this team isn't miles and miles ahead of where they were just a few short months ago. Villa's certainly not out of the woods yet, and they could absolutely still muck it up. But for the first time that I can remember in about six months, I'm genuinely confident that they won't.
I genuinely believe that this Villa team, as they are now, would finish quite comfortably mid-table over the course of a full season. That doesn't matter for much when so much of this season have been horrendous, and the margins are still so fine that the improvement might not be sufficient. But if they can survive--and for the first time that I can recall this season, I feel confident in saying that I believe they will--and they manage to keep this team together, next season could be a whole lot of fun. And if you think I'm being overly dramatic, ask yourself this: when was the last time you saw Aston Villa go into the Britannia and have their way with Stoke?
Things are turning around. Six games remain, and four of those look quite winnable. They've got the talent, and as it stands right now they've got their own destiny in their hands. Are they up for it? It is of course too early to say for certain. But if today was any indication, I think the answer is likely going to be yes.