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The West Midlands Derby returns as Aston Villa head to the Hawthorns to take on West Brom

Aston Villa have a chance to break into the top half with a victory in what has become one of the Premier League's most spirited rivalries.

Laurence Griffiths/Getty Images

There was a time-and it wasn't all that long ago-that the West Midlands Derby contested between Villa and West Brom was at best the third most-heated in the region. But with both Birmingham and Wolves out of the top flight and Villa and the Baggies finding themselves fighting one another for position over the past few seasons, the intensity of the rivalry has ratcheted up several notches.

It doesn't hurt that the games have been largely quite batty over the past few years. Neither side has much of a reputation for scintillating football, but the fans have gotten their money's worth when they've clashed as of late. And with West Brom currently fighting to stay out of the thick of the relegation battle and Villa on the precipice of breaking into the top half of the table-while not being all that far away from the mess at the bottom themselves-it's reasonable to hope that this edition of the rivalry will be another to remember.

No derby match worth its salt needs anything external to carry a sense of importance, but with Villa unbeaten in five, winners of two straight, and finally beginning to return to full strength, there's a definite sense that the stakes are heightened. A win here would put Villa on pace to finish with more than 50 points, and strengthen the case that the struggles of the early fall were largely a product of being hit hard by injury rather than a reflection of their actual quality. They're actually on the brink of turning the narrative positive, which given how poisonous things have been the past year or so is fairly remarkable. On the flip side, a loss to a rival is never good for the morale of the fans, and depending on results elsewhere Villa could be right back within striking distance of the bottom five. It's too early to call this a call this a crucial time in the season, but it's pretty easy to envision a scenario where that ends up being the case.

For a variety of reasons, this is the biggest game Villa have played so far this season. Leaving the Hawthorns with three points would feel like a pretty major statement, and would send Villa into the difficult festive period on a high note. And with Villa riding five unbeaten and the Baggies on a run of five with only one point, the Claret and Blues should feel pretty good about their chances. There's still a long ways to go before confidence in both the team and Paul Lambert will be widely restored, but these are the games that need to be won if they're ever going to get there. With Tom Fox saying exciting things about the club's medium-term future and promises that Paul Lambert will be given the opportunity to strengthen the squad in the January window, it would be so easy to get excited. But it's tough to do that unless good things are happening on the pitch.