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Aston Villa face another huge test against Crystal Palace

Aston Villa haven't done a very good job of winning games against their closest rivals so far this season, but on the back of three unbeaten and with Christian Benteke set to return, is it reasonable to think they can turn things around at Selhurt Park?

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Though Aston Villa managed to snatch a draw from the jaws of a victory against Burnley over the weekend, those of us looking for positives will take note that the game was Villa's third straight without a defeat. Coming on the heels of six consecutive losses that's something of a victory, though the upside is somewhat tempered by the fact that Villa are still winless in their last nine straight. Failing to secure the win against Burnley was especially problematic given that A) they're a team Villa need to be better than for a host of reasons, perhaps most importantly B) Villa won't be steering clear of the relegation battle if they can't beat teams near the bottom of the table. The same is true of today's opponent, Crystal Palace.

Palace are one of several teams to do the double over Villa last season, and those six points helped propel the newly promoted side to a surprising 11th place finish. This season hasn't built on that progress so far, as Palace have the exact same record as Villa through 13 games and reside above them in the table thanks to their-admittedly much less appalling-goal difference. This isn't the same team that looked capable of making a real run at the top half of the table under Tony Pulis,  and though the early indications seem to suggest they've probably got enough to avoid the drop this season, this is a game that's winnable for Villa. At least on paper.

And clearly, the return of Christian Benteke is a massive boost for the Claret and Blue. Villa's defensive record isn't sterling by any stretch, but it's solidly middle-of-the-pack; the problem, as it has been for years, has been putting the ball in the net. The three-game suspension for the big Belgian striker was in part so frustrating because he was just beginning to look fully-fit and fully-comfortable once again; if the Benteke that takes the pitch at Selhurst Park is the same Benteke we saw against Spurs-minus the needless sending-off of course-the outlook for this game looks much different. But if the re-adjustment period begins anew, we could very well be in for more of the same.

Not to belabor the point, but games like this are precisely where Villa can't afford more of the same. Palace is a better team than Burnley, but they're still very much a rival for Villa as it stands; these aren't the kind of teams you can afford to drop points to if you want to be in a comfortable position in the table come spring. And though some reasons for optimism are present-Benteke, the emergence of Jores Okore as a shutdown defender (aside from the...unpleasantness at the end of the Burnley match) and the re-solidification of the defense after a rough few months-it's kind of hard to believe Villa are going to get it done until they actually do.

It's been nine games and more than six weeks since that actually happened. Grinding out draws is important to survival, but it's not nearly as important as winning games against the teams around you in the table. Villa failing to do that doesn't doom them, as it's far too early for that. But it does make it harder to believe that they won't end up doomed when all is said and done. It's clear to anyone that's been paying attention that things aren't really going to change or improve markedly until the club is sold. But it would be nice to have a reason to think they may get slightly better before then.