Boxing Day sees West Ham United pay a visit to Aston Villa for the semi-annual meeting of the Premier League's vaunted "David Cameron Claret and Blue Derby." After a spirited second half performance earned Rémi Garde's side a point on a very wet pitch at Newcastle United last week, Villa continue a run of games far less difficult than one they just finished, leaving traces of optimism around B6.
However, it still may end up looking like two points lost rather than one gained. Time is inevitably running out on the basement dwellers, and failing to capitalise over the festive period certainly will confirm fears of relegation. This team must find a way to win a game, and fast.
Coincidentally, the last time Villa won at home was in May, against West Ham. Tom Cleverley's goal proved enough to secure a victory. My oh my, that seems like a long time ago.
After winning six of their first 10 Premier League games this campaign, the Hammers have cooled off, but Slaven Bilić's team is still in eighth place. Winless in their last six, but West Ham have managed to draw five of those matches. Fortunately for Villa, one of their main catalysts, Dimitri Payet has been ruled out until at least mid-January due to an ankle injury.
Still, the London club isn't short of attacking threats. Andy Carroll, Manuel Lanzini and Enner Valencia all could be fit to face Villa, causing further worries for an already-shaky backline.
The defence could be boosted this weekend by the return of Micah Richards. Jores Okore has been developing well lately, and may turn out to be one of the bright spots of this bleak season. It may also end up being one of Brad Guzan's last games in goal, if the rumours are true about Garde wanting to bring in a new netminder.
Another consideration for Garde will be squad rotation. Villa face three games in less than a week, so keeping everyone fresh will be important. It means we'll most likely see Adama Traoré, Jack Grealish and Carles Gil each get their chance to start, but when they will do so is unknown.
Last match against Newcastle, the four central midfielders worked well, but Villa will run out of bodies before they get to Sunderland if the exact same formation is used in back-to-back games. Gil could get the nod to play behind the strikers, because I think it's clear that Jordan Ayew should be paired with Rudy Gestede from the start.
Ashley Westwood did a decent job after being reintroduced to the lineup, and could keep his place. That would allow Garde to keep Idrissa Gana on the bench, and he'd be fresher for the Norwich match which comes just two days after West Ham.
West Ham (4-1-4-1):
Adrián; James Tomkins, James Collins, Angelo Ogbonna, Aaron Cresswell; Alex Song; Michail Antonio, Cheikhou Kouyaté, Mark Noble, Mauro Zárate; Nikica Jelavić.
Aston Villa (4-3-1-2):
Brad Guzan; Alan Hutton, Micah Richards, Jores Okore, Leandro Bacuna; Ashley Westwood, Carlos Sánchez, Jordan Veretout; Carles Gil; Jordan Ayew, Rudy Gestede.
Who would you start if you were Garde? Let us know in the comments.
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