After a horrendous December, 2013 has actually been rather kind to Aston Villa (relative to 2012, at least.) While it's true that they've lost twice as many as they've won and taken just 9 points from 27 games, they've shown undeniable improvement and--perhaps just as importantly--a clear willingness to fight for their place in the league. The last four have been especially encouraging, with wins against West Ham and Reading bookending close, hard-fought, and arguably harsh losses to Arsenal and Manchester City. It's not quite a revival, but it's encouraging. It's a similar story for QPR; after spending the majority of the season dead last and looking hopeless, Rangers have put together back-to-back wins in the league. They're still in the cellar, but three points and a favorable result at the DW Stadium would pull them out of the drop zone for the first time since the second week of the season.
At the risk of stating the obvious, this is a huge game for both sides. A win would bring Villa to 30 points, guaranteeing that the gap between themselves and the drop stays at three and potentially bringing them as high as 16th. Almost as importantly, it would serve as further evidence that this young team has matured, that they're capable of closing out winnable games and well equipped to handle the pressures of the relegation battle. Where QPR is concerned, another win--or even a point--against a relegation rival would add to their momentum and keep them well within reach of safety. There's plenty of season left and the margins for both sides are still razor thin, so nothing that happens in this game will mean safety or doom for either team. But it's difficult to overstate its importance.
In many ways, it's Villa that has more to lose. Playing at home against a team they're certainly capable of beating, anything less than three points is a missed opportunity. This is probably the last game of the season in which Villa come into the day as favorites, and with games against Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea still to come a bit of breathing room would be most welcome. QPR's done enough the last few weeks that a win away from home isn't a must; they can afford to sit back a bit and take things as they come. That's not to say they'll be coming into Villa Park looking to play for the draw--this is Aston Villa they're playing, after all--but it's far from a terrible result, especially with Reading and Southampton facing tough challenges this weekend.
It isn't especially difficult to decipher what it is Villa will need for a win. Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann will, as always, be crucial; when those two are on their game, this team's attack looks as good as any outside of the top six, and Villa being on the front foot masks their very serious shortcomings at the back. Losing Fabian Delph to suspension is a major blow; his form prior to picking up a two-match ban against City was excellent, and his ability to disrupt opposing counter-attacks would come very much in handy against a QPR team that is at its most dangerous by far on the break. Still, Villa doesn't necessarily need to control the center of the park; they just not to avoid getting bosses around it. If whichever central midfield group Paul Lambert can perform as well against QPR as they did against Reading, that area of the pitch shouldn't be a concern. As per usual, it's the defense that's worrisome. They've looked significantly more solid as of late, but they're clearly still a bend-don't-break unit at this point. Rangers might not have the most intimidating attack in the league, but there's plenty of talent there to punish any lapses.
I'm sure you get it. This is a huge game for Villa, and QPR is a much better team now than they were a few months ago. This is the kind of game that would have filled me with dread not so long ago. But now? I wouldn't call it confidence necessarily (we've got a long way to go before I'm comfortable using that word in reference to this team) but I have a good feeling about this game. I really like what I've seen from this team over the past five games, and though QPR is possibly the most talented team remaining in the relegation battle, they're beatable. Will it happen? Well, we'll find out. But I no longer have a feeling of inevitable dread coming into these games, and that's a major step in the right direction.