In a sense, things are lining up nicely for Aston Villa. Christian Benteke is approaching full fitness and potentially able to crack the starting XI, they've come through an imposing gauntlet of opening fixtures in decent shape, and the Everton side that looked like a legitimate challenger for Champions League football last season have limped through the first seven games with just six points to show for it. In another sense, Aston Villa's a bit of a mess; they've lost three in a row by an aggregate score of 8-0, Fabian Delph is injured and will be healthy just in time to sign a pre-contract for Stoke, Philipppe Senderos is hurt, Ron Vlaar is hurt and probably headed to Manchester United, and few people are confident in the ability of Villa's biggest signing in several years to adapt to the Premier League anytime soon.
What's clear is that Everton is a more talented team than Villa, and as the home side should be considered favorites. Probably heavy favorites. But the Toffees' form complicates matters; it's a complicated issue, but a fairly reasonable conclusion to draw is that bad form is A) a real phenomenon and B) impossible to predict. Everton look like crap right now, but they almost certainly won't look like crap for the entire season, or any extended period of time. Good teams-and Everton is a good team- play poorly for stretches, the problem is figuring out when those stretches are going to come to an end.
In that sense, it's better to assume that the opposition is going to be at the top of their game. And Everton at the top of their game are a very, very good side; taking things to the next level and cracking the top four was always going to be a long shot, but the Toffees entered the season very firmly in the second tier. This isn't a game anyone would have expected much from two months ago, and though it's reasonable to adjust one's expectations based on how things have gone to this point, viewing Everton as you would the 17th placed side in March isn't especially rational.
Thanks to a strong start to the year, this game is largely gravy for Villa. They're the underdog, more easily earned points are there for the taking down the line, and though Villa have been losing heavily as of late they've been playing well enough-most importantly without showing the same kind of shaky vulnerability that was so evident in recent years-and losing games to better teams without embarrassing themselves. Under more normal circumstances, this would be a pretty "well, whatever happens happens" kind of game.
But because of the loss of Delph, the return of Benteke, and the uncertainty surrounding the defense, this game feels much bigger. Villa don't need a win, or even a point, but they need a strong performance. Carlos Sanchez needs to look like he belongs, Christian Benteke needs to look healthy, and the defense needs to look as solid as it's looked so far this season despite the absence of its two most solid players. Is feeling this way stupid? Yeah, it's pretty stupid. It's not rational, it's only one game, etc. But as we've learned over the past few years, optics matter. Four losses in a row isn't going to do much for anyone's spirits, and given the uncertainty surrounding several (perhaps all) of Villa's key players, the potential for the return of existential dread is quite real.
All of which is to say, the result of this game probably doesn't matter a whole lot, but the performance does. Things started quite well, and then they went downhill, and now the plausible beginning of a real tailspin is hovering menacingly on the horizon. Give the Toffees a real fight, or really dig in and take a point (or three, why the hell not) and the narrative shifts, the players gain some confidence, and next week's date with QPR looks like a springboard to better things. Fall apart, and it looks like a trap before Spurs send Villa reeling. In the end, "don't play like crap" doesn't seem like a high bar to clear. But given expectations, it's more than enough to set nerves on edge.