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Aston Villa with a chance to make a real statement of intent against Swansea City

There have been many signs of growth and positive change from Villa of late, but all of that progress would be for naught with a poor showing in the busy festive period that kicks off against Swansea City this afternoon.

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Given Aston Villa's recent form - unbeaten in 6 of their last 7 and perhaps unlucky not to have taken down a red-hot Manchester United side their last time out, all the while showing significant improvement in quality - it's reasonable to feel at least a little bit of excitement about the way the rest of the season could unfold. But the reality of the festive period fixtures, of which today's clash against Swansea City is the first, is that the entire trajectory of a season can be turned around in very short order. In just over a week, Villa could very easily be well ahead of the danger zone and safely entrenched in the top half of the table. They could also be right back in the middle of the relegation battle, and it could happen before anyone really has a chance to assess what's happened.

It's a whirlwind of games, somewhat different than the occasional mid-week fixture due to the short turnaround and the fact that everyone is playing, making it much easier for fortunes to change drastically in the space of a week. That's especially true in Villa's case, with all three games coming against sides not far ahead or behind Villa in the table. The bigger concern would certainly be Sunderland or Palace taking three points off of Villa and closing the gap a bit, but since the Christmas Spirit is still lingering - and because this is ostensibly a preview of the match against Swansea - we'll leave that aside for now to focus on the positive.

This isn't a game Villa have to win by any stretch of the imagination. It's a game from which a point would be a perfectly acceptable result, in fact. But right now, it really feels like Villa are building to something. Only West Brom have managed to defeat Villa over the past 7 games, and it's difficult to see that game ending with that result had it finished with 11 men on each side. The Claret and Blue are finally getting healthy, they're showing more confidence and playing better football, and even the calls for Paul Lambert's head have quieted somewhat. The middle of the table is bunched quite tightly together right now, and even the sides that should be expected to pull away from the pack haven't given much of a reason to think they're going to do so any time soon. Expecting Villa to challenge for a place in Europe is certainly out of the question, but a push for the top half and a foundation upon which to build next season feels quite easily within reach.

A loss at Swansea won't definitively change any of that, but it would certainly put a bit of a damper on things. We've been here before, after all, and each time Villa have fallen back to earth in predictably soul-crushing fashion. For once it would be nice to see the team actually build on the momentum they've generated and take a real step forward, because until they do that all of the positive signs in the world don't really mean anything if it ends up right back where it started. The Swans are a good team, certainly better than Villa so far and with a much better track record over the past few seasons. But they're not a team that's so much more talented that Villa shouldn't be expected to compete with them.

We all want to believe that things are finally starting to come around, that Paul Lambert has his core in place and that they're beginning to round into the kind of form he ultimately expected to see from them. And there are defensible reasons for genuinely believing that to be the case. But until we see it over an extended period of time, it's every bit as reasonable - perhaps even moreso - to think it's nothing more than another blip on the radar before a return to form. Nothing that happens in isolation against Swansea this afternoon is going to prove anything one way or the other, but a strong showing in these next three games would go a long way towards making people believe that this turnaround is for real. And without a result against the only team of real quality Villa will face during this festive period, it's hard to see anyone changing their mind.