Thanks to a two-game winning streak against their relegation rivals, things in Aston Villa land were feeling about as positive as they have since the last time these two sides met. Out of the bottom three, showing an ability to fight back from adversity and protect late leads, it almost felt as though this club was finally ready to put the relegation battle behind them. They may yet do just that, and nothing that happens elsewhere should detract from some real positive signs shown by Villa as of late, but to say that Saturday's results could have gone better would be a pretty major understatement. A late winner for Wigan pushed Villa back into 18th, while victories for West Ham and Southampton increased the pressure from above.
The downward momentum of the middle of the table is certainly positive news as at this point any club in the bottom half could conceivably be relegated, while a win for Villa would propel them to 16th, even on points with Newcastle and theoretically within striking distance of 10th placed Fulham. Those two wins were huge, and it's still entirely possible that they're the ones that will end up preserving Villa's Premier League status. But with Wigan clearly being Villa's biggest threat at the moment, it's slightly disconcerting to see them, well, being Wigan once again.
And at first glance, seeing Liverpool headed to town isn't especially welcome. The Reds are a team that's headed in a positive direction, developing an identity under Brendan Rodgers and by all appearances on the path back to the level at which you would expect them to be. Liverpool will be favored, rightfully, and a point would be a welcome result for a Villa side that has done enough the past few weeks to relieve a great deal of the pressure as we head into the home stretch.
But while most Villa fans would take a point, the fact that Liverpool is beatable will likely be in the back of may a mind. There was that lovely afternoon in December, of course, when Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann had a coming out party, running rampant over a Liverpool defense that was totally incapable of stopping or even slowing them down. That was then of course, and lesser teams than Liverpool have learned the appropriate lessons from that game and managed to neutralize to some extent both of Villa's young strikers. But despite Liverpool's largely improved form as of late, they're still vulnerable. Southampton tore them to shreds in their last league game, putting up a 3-1 victory at St. Mary's in stylish fashion. In many ways, Liverpool has been an all or nothing side this year; out-rightly slaughtering teams like like Wigan (4-0), Swansea (5-0), Norwich (5-0) and Fulham (4-0) while managing to lose to teams such as Southampton, Villa, Stoke, and even Oldham.
That gnawing little voice, that's gotten a little taste of winning football and wants more, is rather convincing. It's so easy to see a path to victory; sit deep, press in midfield, find the openings and strike on the counter. Simple, right? Of course it isn't, but with some daylight within reach and two winnable games on tap it's so tempting to want to listen to it. And against my better judgment, I'm somewhat inclined to do so. Liverpool is a good side, but they are beatable, and Villa's form over the past two months really does feel like something more than a fluke. The things that have plagued them all season--a lack of confidence, an inability to take their chances, and an inability to find a way back after coming up against adversity--have been noticeably absent.
I'm not entirely comfortable saying it, but I feel pretty optimistic about this team's ability to do well in close contests. There's still every possibility that Liverpool start the game off on top and put things to bed early on, and that wouldn't be surprising because they're quite simply a better team than Villa. But the gap in talent alone isn't all that extreme, and if Villa can keep things competitive then what they've done over the past few months can't be discounted. This is a team that's shown very real signs that they're coming of age, and though it's probably foolish of me I'm increasingly convinced they've matured. This is not, on a purely practical level, an especially big game for Villa, at least not in a relative sense. But if they can manage to fight their way to a win, it would be increasingly difficult to ignore the feeling that they've turned a corner.