Last week, Aston Villa came into a home game against a direct rival, fresh off two of their best performances in recent memory and with the fans in Paul Lambert's corner more than at any point in months. It was a tremendous opportunity to make a real statement of intent and, predictable, Aston Villa blew it in spectacular fashion. Stoke City were the better side in every sense last weekend, Villa's effort so poor and uninspiring that the home crowd couldn't even be bothered to stick around in order to boo them off the pitch. Well before the 90 minutes were up the air had entirely left the proverbial balloon, all thanks to a Villa team that saved one of the worst performances of the season for a rather inopportune time.
It's difficult to believe that the the letdown felt like a surprise given Villa's inconsistency this season, but it did. The previous two showings were so impressive that it was easy to buy into the belief that this was a club that had finally figured things out. It's true that one game, no matter how poor, is proof that a corner hasn't been turned. But so many things went wrong last weekend, it's difficult to believe that's the case.
Of course, a lot of things about this Aston Villa season are rather difficult to believe. A team that's lost to Stoke, Fulham, Crystal Palace, West Ham and Sheffield United has also beaten Arsenal, Manchester City, and Chelsea en route to taking 10 points off the teams in the top 4. Nearly 30% of Villa's 34 points have come from teams like to be playing Champions League football next season, and how a team still plausibly in the relegation mix in late March has managed to have such relative success of the Premier League's elite is one of the more puzzling questions of the season.
To be clear, Manchester United do not presently inhabit that tier. But they are still in fact Manchester United, and until last weekend's debacle they were the only side to beat Villa by more than two goals in the Premier League this season. Ordinarily, one wouldn't give Villa much of a chance headed into a game at Old Trafford. But nothing about Villa's season makes a lick of damn sense, and with United being a (relative) disaster at the moment, anyone that tells you they know how this game is going to turn out is probably lying. (Unless they're using charts. Charts are incredibly persuasive.)
That's why this season has been so much more enjoyable than the last few, despite the overall results not being significantly better. In recent years things have gone according to a somewhat predictable script; Villa scraped their way to enough points to keep their heads above water, not doing anything predictably memorable and playing football that seldom rose above a level most charitably described as competent. This season has seen the Villa of old on display fairly regularly, but it's been interspersed with stunning upsets, periods of very good football, and several moments that Villa fans will likely remember for some time to come.
None of this is predictive, unfortunately, but very little about Villa's play has been. Which, in a way, is refreshing. This isn't a good team, and there's still a fair amount of work to do before they're capable of becoming one. But that lack of predictability has made them watchable, which is just about all one can ask for at this point. Will they beat United? Probably not. United have significantly more talent, they're the home side, and they're likely less vulnerable to Villa's counter-attack than most other sides in the top half of the table. But even coming off of a disaster of a game against Stoke, the sense of dread that would typically accompany a trip to Old Trafford isn't quite as present, and it has less to do with United's slide than it might seem. It's more emotional than analytical, but it's something.