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Aston Villa to face Burnley in the last chance to avoid a full-blown panic before the New Year

Two consecutive draws against top-six sides have slowed down Villa's march towards oblivion, but in order to convince anyone that the rot has been stopped they'll need three points against a Burnley side that's looked well over its head on returning to the Premier League.

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Following a two month stretch that can be described only as pure garbage, there's been at least a bit to like from each of Aston Villa's last three games. Getting notching from what looked to be a stunning three points against Spurs felt like a gut-punch, but it must be said that Villa deserved their lead until Christian Benteke's sending off. Against two good sides in West Ham and Southampton Paul Lambert's side didn't do much in the way of threatening the opposition's goal for much of the game, but they kept the opposition from doing the same and were back to looking like a solid, organized unit in the defensive phase. All of that is certainly an improvement, and it's better than things have been. But against Burnley, it's not going to be enough.

Upon a glance at the current table. it's somewhat amusing (or depressing, depending on your perspective) that Aston Villa's stature was once so great that Burnley chose their color scheme in admiration. The Clarets came into the season as a favorite to drop right back down to the Championship, and given their start to the season there weren't many people tripping over themselves to back down from those predictions But November has been kind to Sean Dyche's side, with back-to-back wins pulling them out of the Premier League's basement and bringing them to within striking distance of the mass of mediocrity that is the lower half of the table.

Though Burnley will come into the day riding high off the back of those two wins, it seems likely that they're a side that going to struggle to stay out of the drop zone all season long. Though they gained automatic promotion with a fairly gaudy 93 points last season, they did so largely on the back of a sterling defensive record; They've found it difficult to keep things so tidy at the back against a higher level of competition this season, and their attack has produced just 8 goals, the second fewest in the League. They're a team that's struggled in every phase thus far, and they're exactly the kind of team Villa need to beat if they hope to stay out of the relegation battle.

But before you get too excited, remember who the only team to score fewer goals so far this season. (It's Aston Villa, with 6, which you probably already knew. But I'm going to remind you, because I want you to be just as miserable as I am.) And though the defense has looked solid the past three games and had several sterling performances early this season, on the balance of things they've not been much better than Burnley in that regard. The difference of course is that Aston Villa have ostensibly been under-performing, and that it's reasonable to expect that they'll get better as the season goes along. But as each week ticks by, without Villa showing any real signs of getting much better, it becomes harder and harder to hang on to that belief.

Anything other than a win at Turf Moor isn't going to improve things in that sense. Villa should be a class above Burnley-several classes above, really, but let's not get greedy-and it's comforting to think that they are. And it's at least somewhat reasonable to believe that they are. But a failure to demonstrate that on the pitch makes such a thing harder to believe. And if Villa's not appreciably better than Burnley, well, then what? A big part of being a fan of a bad team is fooling yourself into believing that they're better or less hopeless than they actually are; given Villa's quality so far this season, the only thing left to reinforce that belief is to decisively defeat the weakest opposition in the league.

Can they do that? I sure hope so! And part of me thinks so. But not as large a part as I'd really like. This game has 1-1 draw written all over it, and while a result of that kind isn't necessarily a terrible thing-that was the same result of this fixture in the 2009-10 season, when Villa were knocking on the door of the Champions League-but expecting that result is a different matter. Yes, Villa are missing their two best players. Yes, Villa are suffering some pretty debilitating injuries. But would it really feel any different if they were at full strength? I'm skeptical. The reality is that Villa are a ship adrift at sea. And try as they might to save things, it's a ship piloted by some really piss-poor mariners.