Paul Lambert has managed some very big games in his relatively short time with Aston Villa; the stretch run last season was basically a giant ulcer factory, and it's tough to argue that this one game, in mid-season while Villa sit in a (relatively) comfortable position is more important than those life-or-death contests. Still, this is an undeniably massive game for Villa, and it's not difficult to see how it could turn out to be a season-defining moment once all 38 games have been played. A win means Villa reclaim 10th place in the league, with a 9-point edge over the relegation zone and narrowing the gap between themselves and Southampton to 5 points; a loss means falling behind West Brom (and potentially Stoke) and remaining very much within striking distance of the bottom three, before the consideration of losing to a rival at Villa Park even enters the equation.
The ups-and-downs of Villa's season have been well documented, but suffice to say it's been a bit of a rollercoaster. Early on it looked as though Paul Lambert's plan was coming to fruition well ahead of schedule, until the momentum came grinding to a halt and many Villa supporters began to express their frustrations quite vocally. In recent weeks there have been positive signs once again, but it's probably fair to say that the fans are still somewhat skeptical; it wouldn't take much to turn the tide of public opinion once again, and with the state of the bottom half of the table being what it is, it would be difficult to blame anyone for getting a bit antsy.
And if there's one thing that can safely be said for Villa fans-and, obviously, for sports fans in general-it's that they really, really don't like being antsy. They especially don't like being antsy as the result of a disappointing result against the closest thing their team has to a major rival at the moment. It's bad enough to drop points at home to a side in a similar position with the relegation battle being as tight as it is, but when there's as much animosity between the sides as there is between Villa and West Brom, it's a potential powderkeg. No matter what happens, it's unlikely it will have much of a direct impact on Paul Lambert's employment status. But it's not hard to envision a scenario where the result causes enough of the fanbase to lose faith that the road back is all but impassible.
Perhaps that's being overly dramatic, but I'm not so sure. Villa fans have shown themselves to be an influential factor over these past few years, and though Lambert seems to have the full support of the board at the moment, the same was true of both Gerard Houllier and Alex McLeish at similar points as well. This isn't a game Villa have to win, but a loss would be clearly disastrous and even a draw would likely need to see a good performance to keep the grumbling from returning at full throat. This isn't the biggest game Lambert's faced as Villa manager, but it's up there. And in the end, his own personal stake in the outcome may never have been higher.