If you had told Villa fans at the start of the season that after six league games the team would have taken ten of the available eighteen points, good for fifth place in the table, I think most of us would have taken that. Try for a moment to throw out the road the team took to get to this point-the humiliation against Newcastle, the handing over of three points to Stoke, the inability to put Bolton away-and focus just on the bottom line, it's not at all a bad place to be. Every stretch of schedule is going to have some unexpected occurrences, and what's important is that Villa haven't buried themselves in the same manner that Everton have.
Which is very good news, because Villa are entering one of the tougher stretches of opponents that they'll see all season. In the month of October Villa travel to White Hart Lane, host Chelsea, face Sunderland at the Stadium of Light and host the first of this year's Second City derbies. November isn't much easier, with games at Fulham and at home against Manchester United and Arsenal. There are nine games to be played between now and the end of November, and at this point only two of them are games that it is reasonable to say Villa should win.
When you look at things in that context, those ten points seem a little lackluster. There's no sense in going over those games again, because we all know what went wrong. The key is keeping those same things from going wrong again. There are shortcomings with this squad, but the talent is there to compete with any team in the Premier League if they play to their abilities. The lapses to this point have been largely mental; make those mistakes against Bolton and they knick a draw. Make them against Chelsea and they hang seven on you.
The intention here is not to cast gloom. Having seen the way Gerard Houllier manages the game, I'm quite confident in his ability to make necessary adjustments and use creativity where substitutions and tactical decisions are concerned. The defense looks more disciplined and less prone to collapse. He's not a miracle worker by any means, and there are still improvements to be made, but I'm far more comfortable now than I was two weeks ago. We still haven't seen this team play as well as they're capable of playing since the first week of the season though, and against the best teams in this league that's simply not good enough.
This is where we find out what we really have. Villa have yet to play a team that, in the context of the Premier League, could be described as good. In the coming weeks, that's going to change. If they want to emerge from this stretch with their hopes of European competition (any European competition) in good standing, they'll have take care of the teams they should be expected to beat and steal some points that they probably shouldn't. Are the holes on this team things that need to be upgraded before taking the next step, or are they weaknesses that will send it towards mid-table mediocrity? Have the mental lapses truly become a thing of the past, or was the competition not strong enough to force or capitalize upon them? Is Stilyan Petrov really this bad? We'll know soon enough.