There's a much more jovial mood surrounding Aston Villa and its supporters as of late, and rightly so; two high-quality impact players have been brought in and several under-performers with high wages have been jettisoned. New midfielder Jean Makoun will not be available for this match, but the much bigger acquisition -striker Darren Bent- will be. The transfer of Bent from Sunderland has given the club's fans a massive boost in confidence and spirits are higher than they've been in nearly a year. For good reason; Villa have frustrated all year by putting together long periods of dangerous possession that have often led to nothing thanks to a lack of quality finishing, and if there's one thing Bent provides (and I mean that literally, because it's about the only thing Bent provides, but boy is it a big thing) it's the ability to finish. A fixture that a week ago looked incredibly daunting is instead being met with confidence, a shocking turnaround given the state of the fan base this time last week.
As much as I hate to be a downer, it's possible that people are getting just a bit ahead of themselves. Manchester City currently sit tied with rivals Manchester United at the top of the table with 45 points, though United have two games in hand. None of us should need reminding that it was only three weeks ago that Aston Villa suffered one of their more humiliating defeats in recent memory, a 4-0 thrashing at the Eastlands that is eclipsed this season only by the bafflingly terrible 6-0 defeat to Newcastle in August. City were beyond dominant on the day, overwhelming Villa in every facet and looking very much like the best team in the Premier League. And while Villa have since brought Darren Bent into the fold Manchester City have added a pretty decent forward themselves in Edin Džeko.
I don't think it's contradictory to feel very positive about the club and the direction in which they are heading while simultaneously feeling less than optimistic about this match. And in case it wasn't especially obvious, I'm not exactly optimistic about this match. Manchester City are really, really good and while I think Aston Villa are better than they were a week ago I haven't seen the consistency necessary for me to call them anything close to that. The talent is there and there have of course been flashes, but Villa have yet to put everything together for 90 minutes. Until they do that, calling them a good bet at taking a point off of the likes of Manchester City is the definition of overconfident.
As thrilled as I am to have Bent in the fold, I can't help but feeling that perhaps Jean Makoun would have more of an impact on this particular match. The lack of a quality defensive mid has been hugely apparent for Villa this year, and while the defense must shoulder a great deal of the blame for the spotty goals allowed record it's tough to operate at anything close to your highest level without any sort of defensive shield. There's also the fact that Bent is the type of striker that relies on good service to be productive and a great deal of the relationship between such a player and those providing the supply is a matter of feel. There's simply no way Bent and Villa's playmakers are going to be clicking just yet, and we most likely won't see what this team's attack is capable of tomorrow.
It's not all doom-and-gloom though, and Villa have a few reasons to feel good going into this one. The first is obviously Bent and the boost he's sure to give his colleagues; players want to win and they want to play with good players, and if Villa's performance has been at all affected by a lack of confidence (and it would be difficult to say that it has not) then Bent's presence could do a great deal to help turn the tide. Ashley Young will also return from his one-match ban served against Birmingham City, and he was quite clearly missed in that fixture. This is the healthiest and most fully-fit the squad has been all season, and though we should expect their play to improve as Bent and Makoun are integrated into the squad this will almost certainly be the best XI Villa have put out there all season.
Manchester City are in similarly good health, their only major injuries being to Micah Richards and Mario Balotelli and neither player would really be considered first choice at their respective positions at the moment. Their recent performances in league have been a bit lackluster however; while the club has taken seven of the nine points available to them in the month of January they've done so in less than inspiring fashion, barely squeaking out a 1-0 victory against Blackpool, contesting a drab 0-0 draw away against Arsenal and going up 4-1 against Wolves at home before very nearly letting Wolves claw their way back to a point and hanging on to victory at 4-3. City are one of the better collections of talent in the world, but they don't always play like it as their 1-1 draw at with Stoke at Britannia and 0-0 draw at home with Birmingham City would suggest. And while the 4-0 was an absolute joke of a performance by Villa we know for certain that they are capable of much, much better and I think there's a good chance we see it tomorrow.
I thought the defense performed well against Birmingham City last week and while I am still unconvinced by Ciaran Clark at right back I think we will (and should) see the same back four once again. If I had my druthers the midfield would be comprised of Reo-Coker and Bannan in the center with Downing and Albrighton out wide and Ashley Young in the withdrawn forward role in sort of a 4-1-3-2, but I doubt that's what we end up seeing. I fully expect Stilyan Petrov to start and the team start out in something of a 4-4-1-1, but if that's not working from the start I'd hope Gerard Houllier will be a bit quicker on the draw with his substitutions this time around.
I think a close Manchester City victory is the most likely outcome here though I certainly would not be surprised (and quite happy) with a draw. And as long as it is not on the order of the shellacking we saw towards the end of December I think that's perfectly acceptable. Being 17th in the league is never fun, but it's important to note that Villa are 17th in the league with 22 points. Not since 2002-03 has a team been relegated while finishing with more than 40 points, which means that of the 48 remaining available Villa need to secure only 18 to feel moderately comfortable in their safety. Even if you believe that a team going down with 40 points is well within the realm of possibility this season, taking just a little over a third of those remaining seems a tad pessimistic considering Villa have taken exactly one third of the available points so far this year.
The point that I am trying to make is this; Manchester City aren't a team that it's reasonable to expect Villa to defeat at this point, and if they end up on the losing end of things it's pretty far from the end of the world. After the previously postponed trip to Wigan Athletic is made up on Tuesday Villa visit Old Trafford the Tuesday following. From that point on until the 14th of May, there is no Premier League match scheduled that Villa would not be considered a serious threat to take at least one point. Off the top of my head, I see eight fixtures which I would absolutely expect Villa to take all three points from and several other in which it would not at all surprise me. A loss tomorrow would be far from disastrous and I am begging you, pleading with you-should Villa come out on the wrong end of things, do not let it erase all of the positive feelings we've built up over the past week-plus. This team is far better than it was at the beginning of January and they should be well on their way to putting any fears of relegation behind them. Sports fans are fickle, and Villa fans moreso than most (and yes, I am aware of the images that statement conjures up, but it is absolutely true.) For once, I'd like that to not be the case.
Watch the game, watch Darren Bent, have a good time. Hope for a good performance and for there to be signs of a working relationship developing between our newest addition and therest of his attacking compatriots. I'm not saying that we shouldn't be critical of poor play, but if the team performs well and loses, don't let it wreck the fun we should be having right now. This season has been terrible, but we're starting to see something that should be pretty damned enjoyable take shape. This has been the best week of the season so far, and we haven't even played a game. Keep the positivity going.