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Aston Villa's most brutal stretch begins with a trip to Liverpool

The next five games could be crucial in determining how the rest of this season-and potentially the future of the club-plays out.

Michael Steele

When this season's fixture list was released, Villa fans took a look at the first three games, the five games that followed, and thought to themselves "wow, we'd really better take some points from those first three games." The next month or so is an absolute nightmare, with last season's top four teams all in a row and a trip to Goodison Park to face a very good Everton side thrown in at the end for good measure. And it all begins against Liverpool at Anfield, a daunting prospect even in the best of times (or worst of times, assuming you're a Liverpool fan.)

Luckily for Villa, they did take some points from the first three. Seven points to be exact, and they looked downright competent at times while doing so. And despite Liverpool's re-awakening and Villa's continued slide these past few years, the Claret and Blues have actually held their own against the Reds as of late, especially at Anfield. Whether or not that second point is predictive at all is a matter for debate (and for the record, that debate would end with the conclusion that it is not) but from an emotional standpoint, there are reasons to feel more optimistic about this game than is typical.

Hopefully that optimism proves to be well-placed, because oh man this next stretch of games. A pragmatist might say that the order in which the games are played doesn't really matter; every team plays the same schedule after all, and since you'd expect Villa to perform poorly in these games no matter when they fall in the season, if they do in fact have a poor run of results over the next month it shouldn't really change your expectations. And there's definitely some truth to that.

On the other hand, if there's any doubt that a run of poor form can have a ripple effect on a team not exactly brimming with confidence, the Villa teams of the last few years would seem to make an ideal counterpoint. And it's also worth noting, that if a game or three from this stretch were taking place later in the year, there's a good chance that Christian Benteke and/or Libor Kozak would be available. And though Villa have looked quite decent in their first three games, this is still a team with some pretty glaring weaknesses that none of their first three opponents have been good enough to exploit. Liverpool definitely are, and providing a blueprint for picking apart Aston Villa would be some pretty fitting revenge for the results of the past few years.

The one thing that should cheer up you up after all of that is a reminder that Villa's defense has looked quite resolute, a stark contrast to the club's first two seasons under Paul Lambert. True, they haven't faced a club with nearly as much firepower as Liverpool, but there's legitimate reason to believe that this is a team whose defense could be as stalwart as any team outside of the European contenders. They'll still struggle to score, at least until their strike force is once again fully intact, but a club with a good defense is going to be competitive in almost any game they play. The test in this case will be how the midfield deals with the Reds' abundance of quality in that area; so far, Villa have held their own in the middle of the park every time out, and that's taken much of the pressure off of the back line. If the central three get overrun, it's going to test Ron Vlaar and Friends in a way that hasn't happened as yet this season.

It's a bit silly to think of this as a "big game" for Villa, seeing as how it's September and that getting a result at Anfield isn't a reasonable expectation for this team at the present. But in the sense that it will give us our first look at how well this revamped Villa side can fare against the league's elite sides, it's pretty important. If they can hold their own in a loss or even steal a result, that's likely to give a still young side a boost to their confidence going forward and keep the mood around the club positive-or at least neutral-for another week or so. But if they leave Anfield battered, bruised, and beaten, things are still fragile enough that it could cause some real problems, especially given the run of games that will still be to come. The importance of optics in professional sports is sometimes annoying, but in a season so pivotal to Villa's future, keeping up the appearance of competence and stability is undeniably vital. If they can get through this next stretch (relatively) no worse for the wear, it can only mean good things.