With Aston Villa's 2-1 victory over Norwich City last Saturday, they moved into that rather uncomfortable zone of "probably safe but not mathematically safe and still close enough to feel a sense of dread." That's certainly an improvement over where they were a month or two back, when relegation was a very real possibility, but it's still not as good as "not in danger of relegation." Saturday, Villa have their first chance to move into that zone. Unfortunately, getting there involves beating Chelsea.
It's arguable, but there's a case to be made that Villa never would have fallen so close to the edge of the cliff if not for their last meeting with the reigning Champions of Europe. Things were looking as though they'd turned a corner until Villa's trip to Stamford Bridge, and the hangover from that 8-0 humiliation turned into two more heavy losses and eventually an eight game winless streak. Runs like that happen to teams without suffering thrashings such as the one the Blues put on Villa, but it's fair to assume that the result did have a significant impact on the team's psyche. The confidence that Villa's shown over the past few months was also evident in the weeks leading up to their trip to the Bridge (and arguably contributed to the game getting so completely away from them) and it was then gone for the better part of two months.
Were there other factors at play? Certainly. That miserable run of games began to feed off of itself, and it took some significant changes and ground-out results to get things back on track. But it's what set the stage, at the very least. It almost cost Villa their Premier League status--it still could to be fair, though the odds are certainly against it at this point--and it was a tremendously unpleasant fall back to Earth after such a promising result at Anfield just one week prior. But it was also a learning experience. Pundits love to talk about the importance of character when insinuating that Paul Lambert's plans for Villa are naive, and if becoming the butt of jokes for the better part of a month thanks to being on the receiving end of that manner of clock-cleaning doesn't build character, there's probably not much in this game that will.
And there are some signs that it did just that. Villa's lost since that run of misery ended, but only once have they lost by more than one goal. That game--a 3-0 loss to Manchester United--looked very much like it could spiral out of control and knock the wind out of Villa's sails once again, but it didn't. A team that looked hopeless and confused against Chelsea when things got ugly instead seemed to recognize what was happening, and they did what they needed to do in order to stop it. It wasn't pretty, but it was tolerable, and the next week out Villa destroyed Sunderland 6-1. That's not to say that all of this is perfectly linked in a cause-and-effect relationship, but there's something to it. This team's grown up, and as they've grown up they've gotten better. Better at playing the game, but also better at dealing with adversity when things go wrong. And that's important.
None of that's to say that Villa are going to be likely winners in this game. In fact, nothing in the four paragraphs above has much to do with anything that's going to happen in this game. Chelsea is a much, much more talented team, and though it's not out of the realm of possibility that Villa can pull out a win, it's certainly not especially likely. What's important is, that's okay. It's okay because Villa's gotten better, and done (mostly--I'm still not quite ready to tempt fate) what's necessary to stay in the league. And at this point, that's really the only important thing. Next season will be different. The expectations will be rightfully higher, and merely surviving won't be enough. But given the enormity of the task facing the club at the start of the season, staying in the league this time around is plenty.
I'm talking about this now, because one way or another that loss at Stamford Bridge was going to be a defining moment of Villa's season. If the slide had continued and Villa had fallen into oblivion, it would be the moment everything fell apart. If Villa manage to stay up, it's going to be the adversity that they had to overcome in order to prove themselves. I like to make fun of sports narratives, so it's probably hypocritical of me to push this one. But as tired as they may become, there's often some level of truth to them, and this is one that I think is pretty legitimate. And it would be pretty fantastic to finish off said narrative with a win.
The way I look at it, Chelsea put a pretty enormous damper on a few months of my life. I don't really have much of a problem with Villa doing the same to their entire season.