Aston Villa host Norwich City in a match that could set the tone for the stretch run

Jamie McDonald

Following a winless February, Aston Villa kick off what could be a season-defining stretch against Norwich City.

For much of this season, Aston Villa have been coasting on a relatively strong start and slogging through unimpressive performances, doing just enough to stay above the fray without ever really looking as though they would be immune from the relegation battle should it come to pass. With the bottom-feeders looking incapable of dragging themselves back to the pack, Villa's indifferent form was more annoying that consequential for much of the season, but thanks to a winless month and a surge from several clubs that so recently appeared to be in significantly more trouble than Villa, it's beginning to look as though the final three months of the season may not be so free of drama as it may once have seemed.

For many team in Villa's predicament, the upcoming stretch of games would be something of a blessing; though the clash with Chelsea is likely to be a loss, having three in a row at home is generally a positive, especially when two of those games are with teams on roughly equal footing. Unfortunately, Aston Villa at home is Aston Villa at home. Given how long it's gone on it's pretty difficult to make the case that the team's Villa Park form is a fluke, and there's not so perplexing a position to be in as a fan to feel less confident when you're team is playing at home versus the alternative.

That's part of the reason this next run of games feels so important to the Paul Lambert era at Aston Villa; on away form, Villa's been a solid middle-o-the-road team, within shouting distance of sides such as Everton and Manchester City. At home, only Fulham have been worse. It's pretty reasonable to believe that there's not going to be a change in sentiment among Villa's fanbase until the team begins to play like something better than one of the worst teams in the league at Villa Park.

The sentiment is amplified against Norwich City, a club that's become something of a rival over the past few seasons. It would be overstating things to say that Villa's animosity for the Canaries approaches the level reserved for Birmingham, West Brom, or even Wolves. Likewise, Norwich fans likely don't spend a lot of time rooting for Villa's downfall. But there's clear animosity between the two clubs over Paul Lambert's departure, and that distaste has permeated into their respective fanbases. Some rivalries are ageless, while others are transient; Villa-Norwich is clearly the latter, but that doesn't mean this game doesn't mean a bit more than most of the others.

That's even before the implications on the relegation battle are taken into account, and those implications are quite substantial. Villa and Norwich are equal on points, and neither of them are likely to feel as though that point total is nearly enough in order to bring about restful sleep. But things are so tight-and the teams in the relegation zone so woefully bad-that three points from this game could potentially be enough to drastically change the season's outlook. It's reasonable to believe that neither of the sides below these two will pick up more than a point, which means 11th place and a two-win cushion over the drop is a reasonable expectation for a winning side.

At this point, Paul Lambert and Villa could really do with such a boost. Barring an unforeseen uptick in quality, the best the club can hope for from this season is a more comfortable finish and a slight improvement over the last campaign. That's not really what anyone was hoping for back in the early fall, when it really did appear as though this club was ready to turn a corner. But that's significantly better than the alternative, and if Villa pull their way to safety thanks to something approaching competence at home, it will do wonders for the spirits of both the team and their supporters. A win over Norwich isn't necessarily crucial to accomplishing that aim, but it would go a very long way towards setting the right tone.

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