Aston Villa have spent the majority of the season in the position of being high enough up the table that another relegation battle seemed unlikely, but not so far ahead of the bottom three that all doubts were erased. Then came February, which saw Villa get just one point from four games, and things began to get uncomfortable once again. The team wasn't scoring, they were losing to bad teams, and it didn't look as though they'd be turning things around any time soon. Until they did, soundly thumping Norwich City 4-1 and once again giving themselves enough breathing room to feel something approaching comfort.
In many ways the past five weeks have been a microcosm of Villa's season; a string of dull, uninspiring performances punctuated by a thrilling, emphatic display. It's just enough to serve as a reminder that this is a team that's capable of looking a step beyond boring competence, but inconsistency has been such a hallmark of this season that it's been all but impossible to make an informed prediction about which team will show up on any given day. That's certainly better than the past few years, when it was reasonable to expect that Villa would be the inferior side on any given day, but it's not without its frustrations. How a team is capable of not only hanging with but genuinely outplaying teams like Arsenal, Manchester City and Liverpool one week and being a distant second best to sides such as Cardiff City, West Ham and Crystal Palace the next is a pretty puzzling situation.
That's why games against the league's weaker sides are so difficult to look forward to. Villa haven't really given their much reason to believe they should feel confident of a win against teams of equal or lesser quality, and seeing as how so many of those games have ended up as boring, punchless affairs it's tough to work up much excitement. But in a strange way, it makes games against the better teams in the league a little easier to look forward to; until the Norwich game the best football Villa have played all season came against the league's better sides. Though not every game against teams in the top half-who are clearly significantly better than the teams below them to a more extreme degree than is typical-has been a quality performance, Villa have had more of them than you'd expect from a mediocre-at-best team still technically within reach of a relegation battle.
Some of that is probably random noise that conveniently fits a narrative, but there are genuine systemic reasons to think it's a sustainable phenomenon as well; Villa don't have the kind of creativity to needed to consistently break down teams, and their defense is just prone enough to breakdowns that they're not going to consistently keep their opponents off the board. That leads to a lot of low scoring losses and draws and a whole lot of unmemorable games. But against teams that like to get forward Villa's attackers have the space they need in order to play their game. And while the defense isn't going to put up a notable number of clean sheets, they very rarely allow things to get out of hand; only once have they surrendered more than two goals in Premier League play, and Villa have lost only five games by more than a single goal.
Add it all up, and it means that the odds of an entertaining game are higher when Villa take on the league's better teams. That's not to say their odds of winning are higher-that would be nearly impossible to prove, and it's a pretty implausible idea. But it does mean that there's reason to think the next two hours are going to be fun, which is ultimately the point. It doesn't make things any easier to predict; perhaps there's a lot to the idea that Villa's team and style of play give them a better chance higher quality opposition, but that's something else that there just isn't enough data about which to draw any firm conclusions. But the feeling is there, and that matters a lot too.
In seasons past a game against a team as good as Chelsea would be a cause for something approaching dread. But no matter the reasons or how tied to reality they may be, that's not the case this year. It's far, far easier to look forward to a game against the league-leading Blues than one against a team closer to Villa's standing. That's kind of weird, but this team and this season are kind of weird. And at least it's different. It's well within the realm of possibility that Villa will go out and get spanked by Chelsea this evening. Such a thing would surprise approximately no one. But it's also not hard to envision Villa coming out and doing something pretty cool against them, which hasn't been the case for awhile.
Losing sucks and winning is great, but there's something to be said about being excited about a game and thinking your team has something special in them. There's value in moments like that, even if they're fleeting. Is it the same as challenging for the league title or making a run at the Champions League team? Of course not. But when you're a fan of a club like Aston Villa, you've got to find other things to make it fun. Having a little bit of hope isn't the worst.