Following successive heavy defeats to Arsenal and Chelsea, Aston Villa's sterling start to the season isn't exactly a thing of the past-those points are on the board, and they've given Villa a real leg up on the teams with which they're likely to be competing for positioning come the end of the year-but it's certainly lost some of its shine. It wasn't an unexpected return to reality, and there's still a significantly more reason to be encouraged than discouraged by Villa's record through the first six games, but dreaming big is why any of us pay attention to sports in the first place and it's a lot harder to do that now, and it wasn't exactly easy to begin with.
Are the losses to Arsenal and Chelsea a big deal? No, they are not. In the recent past, Villa have often looked so completely out of their depth in games such as these-at least the odd few that they managed to win, somehow-and over the last two games that wasn't the case. Arsenal and Chelsea were quite simply better, and they took their chances against a Villa side they largely played decently and just quite simply didn't have the quality needed to put much pressure on them. It happens, and it's much better to be outclassed than to be exposed; it's no accident that Villa's heaviest defeats over the past few seasons have given way to long stretches of poor form.
If it seems as though the two paragraphs above are in some part meant to prepare you the revelation that I don't expect much from this game, you should be commended on your powers of observation! Because it absolutely is. But perhaps more importantly, I don't really think it matters all that much what happens in this game. To this point, Villa haven't given us much reason to believe that they're going to Capital-S-Struggle in the same manner they have the past three seasons, which means that there isn't the same desperation surrounding each result. Losing to City isn't really that big of a deal, because there's every reason to think Villa will make up those points somewhere else down the line.
A lot of people refer to mid-table obscurity as 'boring', and there's certainly some truth to that; I'd imagine it's somewhat difficult to be too enthused about things if you support a club that's been safely ensconced between the battle for Europe and the battle for survival for a significant stretch. But for a club that's been involved in the relegation battle for four straight years-and especially a club like Villa, which really never should be in such disarray and is, at least plausibly, not incapable of launching themselves into the battle for European places from a comfortable run in mid-table-it would be a welcome sight. Villa haven't assured us such things just yet-still 32 games to play and all-but there's less tension involved than there has been in the past.
That's not to say that nothing bad can come from this game; despite giving up six goals over the past two games, Villa's defense has still looked pretty strong, even without Ron Vlaar in the center of things. That's a big change from last season, and seeing them dismantled would certainly be a reason to reevaluate some of our impressions from the first six games. Conversely, Villa managing to earn a result from this game probably wouldn't be predictive, but it would certainly alter expectations at least a little bit. It is, in other words, a game where there isn't a whole lot to lose-barring total disaster-and a reasonable amount to gain. Stress free, in other words, which is far from the worst thing from the perspective of the heavy underdog. And with Christian Benteke expected to make his return to the squad, this game feels very much like the end of the "hang on for dear life" portion of the season.
The upshot is that Villa did well enough in their first four games that the results of their next four-against four of last season's top five-don't really matter all that much. That win over Liverpool was huge, because it took nearly all of the pressure off; as long as Villa could manage to keep things respectable over their next four, they'd come out ahead. And "keeping things respectable" is a goal I think Villa can manage. That probably doesn't sound like the highest praise, but given the past few years? I can live with that.