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Break out the Maalox; it's time for Aston Villa vs. Sunderland

Depending on Monday's result, Aston Villa could be well on their way to achieving safety or inching ever closer to a final day showdown with Wigan to determine survival.

Stu Forster

We've had our fair hare of "must win" games this season. Of tearing our hair out with every kick of the ball, of "excessive" alcohol consumption, of finding a way to justify every loss in a must-win game as being less important than it seemed roughly 90 minutes prior. But now, well, that phrase actually means something. Perhaps not in the actual, literal sense of "must win", because if Aston Villa loses to Sunderland on Monday they will still be ahead of Wigan in the table and therefore still control their own destiny. But in an informed and rational sense, these three points are the biggest that have been Villa's to take in many years.

A win doesn't mean safety for Villa, not by any stretch. Barring a win by a margin of five goals or more, they'll still be 17th in the league and within Wigan's grasp. The Latics' draw with Spurs over the weekend brought them to within one result of overtaking Villa with an equal number of games played, and given the trip to the DW Stadium scheduled for the last day of the season, that's a crucial statistic. Anyone that's seen this team play under pressure will surely dread a do-or-die game against a Roberto Martinez managed side, and though Wigan didn't manage to keep pace with Villa on a points-per-match basis they certainly did well for themselves considering the competition.

It's that game in hand that Wigan holds that makes things tricky. For the paranoid among us, that result will undoubtedly be nothing other than a win, and that's just far too close a call. Villa's got Norwich next week, and that's a winnable game, but it's not nearly so enticing as a date with a Sunderland team that resides just three points ahead. Unfortunately, this is a team that appears to have been reborn with the dismissal of Martin O'Neill and the appointment of Paolo di Canio. Winners of two games in a row, the Black Cats would all but mathematically seal safety and the promise of a brighter future--quite the bargain they've struck with some entity or another--with a win.

Di Canio has been steadfastly referring to this game as a Champions League final, which is patently ridiculous, but manages to get the point across (while still being ridiculous, for the record.) Sunderland would likely be safe with even a point, while a win for Villa would heap pressure upon both Wigan and Newcastle. Pretty heavy stuff, no? There's no point in me attempting to analyze this game, because I've been a steadily increasingly nervous wreck since the final whistle at Old Trafford. Villla's good enough to win, so is Sunderland, I'm just going to continue pacing/rocking slowly and sipping on beer/coffee until this one is done. Potentially beyond that.

It's all out the door, rational thought. For me at least. I don't want to see Villa relegated, which isn't a groundbreaking statement by any stretch but one that's nonetheless genuine. I'd really rather it not even get close enough to matter come the season's final week. It's nothing against Wigan; my affection for Roberto Martinez isn't a big secret, and I find the ever-presence of the Latics to be pretty entertaining as well (for reasons that I won't get into at the moment.) But given the choice, well, it's not especially difficult. And Villa can go a really very tremendously long way towards staying up with a win. It doesn't have to be pretty; Simon Mignolet can hump the ball into his own net for all I care.

It just needs to be three points. That's what would be required to make my steadfast optimism or survival for this season look realistic, my generally full-throated defense of Paul Lambert justifiable. This has been a bad season, but I still believe that if Villa can manage to stay alive it can serve as a legitimate turning-point back towards the light for the club. All of that can happen with less of a result, but I don't think I can manage to write ever match previews should that come to pass; I'll just fire up the Speak-to-Text function on my phone and weep pathetically into the mouthpiece until the final whistle of the year. So let's save all of us that kind of pain--I sound really insufferably annoying when I cry--and ruin Paolo di Canio's Monday. Two birds, one stone. Sounds like a decent deal.