This time two weeks ago, things were looking pretty good. Aston Villa were fresh off an impressive win over Stoke City, pulling themselves closer to the middle of the table which seemed just as eager to come down to meet them. Since then, things haven't gone so well; Villa put in a strong performance against Fulham only to drop two points thanks to a late own goal, while Villa's relegation rivals have woken up a bit, Wigan being the lone exception. Aston Villa still control their own destiny, but for a fragile team still well within the reach of the bottom three, a trip to face Manchester United at Old Trafford is most unwelcome.
This was never going to be a game Villa would look forward to, but things could have gone better in the build up. There's the wins for Stoke, Sunderland and Norwich City making it less likely that another team could slip into the fray, but there's also the matter of United's added urgency as well; the Red Devils haven't looked vulnerable per se, but they've been as close to such a thing over the past few weeks as they're likely to be. A loss to Manchester City two weeks ago coupled with a rather uninspiring come-from-behind draw against West Ham have prevented United from clinching the title, but a slip up by their cross-town rivals against Spurs on Sunday means they can do just that this evening. There's not much to distract United from the game at hand at the moment so it's certainly not clear that they'd be any easier a task had they already sewn up the top spot, but it's a decent bet that indifference would favor Villa more than any pressure the Red Devils will be feeling.
That is of course not to say this game is a lost cause, as they never are until the final whistle blows. Villa took United down to the wire earlier in the season and have shown significant improvement since then. Alex Ferguson's side have only been beaten four times in the league all year, and for good reason; they're the best team in England. But they're still a team with flaws, and though their strengths have generally been enough to mask them teams have managed to expose their vulnerabilities to some success on a few occasions. For Villa, the key as it always is will be Christian Benteke. As good as the big striker is he's still young and inconsistent, and if there's any hope of a stunner from the visitors they'll need him to be at his best. But that alone isn't enough; Villa will need to avoid the mistakes at the back and against set pieces that have so often plagued them this season. They'll need a strong showing from the midfield. And of course, they'll need more than a little bit of luck.
It's more than that though, as it typically is. Villa isn't going to do much of anything if they look to go into Old Trafford, park the bus, and pray for something on the break. United's attack is far too good, and Villa's rearguard is far too prone to error. But at the same time, a thorough shellacking at the hands of Chelsea caused a tailspin that lasted for nearly two months; that's not something this club can afford right now. Finding that balance, between playing the style which suits the club the most and recognizing the odds and the importance of damage control, is very tricky. There's nothing wrong with taking a more conservative approach against a team of United's caliber, but going too far in that direction is often just as dangerous. It's Paul Lambert's job of course, and he's paid handsomely to get it right. But preparing for this kind of game in this current reality isn't something many people will begrudge him.
There's less pressure for the fans in the leadup to these games, but it's not especially enjoyable for us either. Villa's done well enough the past two months that they don't need to take anything from this game in order to stay alive, but knowing how much your team needs points and being reasonably confident that they won't get them well before the first ball is kicked is a pretty unpleasant feeling. You want to stay positive, to believe that there's a way, and yet the rational side of you isn't having much of it. In games like this, avoiding disaster is the highest expectation one can reasonably hold. Luckily for us, professional athletes don't work that way. They're not especially rational or reasonable people, and when things are going well, most of them wouldn't likely think that avoiding embarrassment is the aim for which they should be striving in the buildup to a game. Those are necessary qualities in athletes at the highest level, because sometimes they'll allow teams to do things that surprise you. If one of those times happened to be today, the timing would be most welcome.