Aston Villa are set to close out the first half of the season against Sunderland at Villa Park today, and it's a game from which anything other than three points would be a disappointment. Villa have been racking up the moral victories over the past few months, but unfortunately they don't award points for these. After dropping another game in which they played well enough to earn at least a point against Swansea, Villa's inability to turn strong defensive showings and quality in the build up into points looks to be the difference between real progress in the table and another season of struggle.
While there are certainly more than a few that refuse to admit it, it would be difficult for any rational observer to deny that Villa's play in most phases of the game these past few months hasn't improved significantly. The Claret and Blue rearguard has played to a high standard all season, and the midfield has come along quite nicely as fall turned to winter. But scoring goals is rather important as it turns out, and Villa's mark of 11 through the first 18 games is well beyond pitiful. Christian Benteke's return has helped, but he can't do it himself-despite what he seems to think at times-and if Villa hope to improve their standing in the league they're going to have to find a way to show the same kind of improvement in front of goal that they've shown everywhere else on the pitch.
Sunderland's defense isn't as porous the league's worst, but it's vulnerable, and it's one which Villa should be able to create chances. They did just that against Swansea, and they weren't able to put them away. It's unfair to level a great deal of blame against the players those chances fell to, as the evidence continues to mount that luck is a massive factor in chance conversion; if Villa can manage 11 shots against the Black Cats as they did against Swans, they're not likely to be shut out again. Whether they can manage that is another story altogether.
Part of the issue is that it is, at this point, rather difficult to "trust the process" so to speak. It's great that Villa are playing better football and keeping games close, but Paul Lambert has had long enough that we should have been through this phase already. We're to the point where wins are what's needed more than progress that doesn't show up in the standings. Luckily, Sunderland are a beatable side, but if Villa don't manage to do so it's going to make it that much harder to care about how good they looked while not winning.