Tonight's trip to the KC Stadium may very well be the match that determines Aston Villa's fate this season.
Paul Lambert's club, stuttering ever since the Scottish head man signed on for another four years in September, has come to the most important run it will have this year.
The Claret and Blues have just 22 points for the season and have scored just 12 goals. We all know this. Things are dire.
But it's not the first time Lambert's Villa have been in a similar position. Hell, they were in a worse one 24 months ago.
So… how did that Villa side save itself?
By getting results against the division's other struggling teams.
I've surely talked about it ad nauseum by this point but Villa's successes and failures were always going to be dependent on the results against clubs like Hull City, Newcastle United, and Sunderland, not against Arsenal, Chelsea, and Manchester City. Sure, it's always nice to get points against the big boys but those should be bonuses.
And that's what brings us to tonight. A crucial juncture in Villa's season. Here's Lambert's men's next six League fixtures…
|Tue 10 Feb||Hull City (A)||18th|
|Sat 21 Feb||Stoke City (H)||10th|
|Sat 28 Feb||Newcastle (A)||11th|
|Tue 3 Mar||West Bromwich Albion (H)||15th|
|Sat 14 Mar||Sunderland (A)||14th|
|Sat 21 Mar||Swansea City (H)||9th|
That's about as nice of a run as you're going to get in this league. Three matches against fellow relegation candidates and three against a group of clubs that… aren't really going anywhere.
They're six matches that Villa can walk into and have a chance at winning. They've already beaten Hull and Stoke this year and probably should've or could've gotten wins against WBA, Sunderland, and Swansea. Couple that with Newcastle in disarray? This is the perfect type of run for Villa to save themselves in.
I'd argue that they need at least the eight points they've picked up in the return fixtures and may very well need 10 — it all depends on where you're drawing the cut line this year in the Premier League. I'm inclined to think that 37 is the magic number for safety — the bottom sides should start improving form as they play mid-table sides down the stretch — and a 10-point run here would put Villa on 32 with eight to play.
But your issue? The run-in isn't very nice. You can see it below…
|Sat 4 Apr||Manchester United (A)||4th|
|Sat 11 Apr||Tottenham (A)||5th|
|Sat 18 Apr||Queens Park Rangers (H)||19th|
|Sat 25 Apr||Manchester City (A)||2nd|
|Sat 2 May||Everton (H)||12th|
|Sat 9 May||West Ham United (H)||8th|
|Sat 16 May||Southampton (A)||3rd|
|Sun 24 May||Burnley (H)||17th|
That's... extremely disheartening to look at in truth. Villa play four of the current top five in that final run in and, really, QPR and Burnley look like the only easily winnable games in that stretch. Do we really want it coming down to a final-day clash with Burnley?
I'd kill someone if that happens. Villa aren't going to ruin my Indianapolis 500 this year, damnit.
So… if Villa don't turn the ship around soon — preferably tonight — they're probably going down. Not because they're one of the three worst teams but because they're not getting results when they need. And that's an important distinction to make. They've passed up some grand opportunities at three points in the not-so-distant past and, well, they can't afford to pass up too many more.
Why should we have some confidence in the squad though? If there's been one hallmark of Paul Lambert's time at the Villa, when the side desperately need a win, they get it. Be it the win over Hull City last year or the run that saved the club two years ago, they've gotten it done.
I mean, look at that 2012/13 squad. They looked dead when they waltzed into Goodison Park on the first of February that season.
But then? A funny thing happened. They started beating the other bad teams around them. Against teams that weren't in the "big seven," Villa closed with these eight results that year…
|West Ham United (H)||W 2-1|
|Reading (A)||W 2-1|
|Queens Park Rangers (H)||W 3-2|
|Stoke City (A)||W 3-1|
|Fulham (H)||D 1-1|
|Sunderland (H)||W 6-1|
|Norwich City (A)||W 2-1|
|Wigan Athletic (A)||D 2-2|
6-2-0 against the rest of the "lesser" clubs down the stretch that year. After the Everton draw to start February, Villa didn't earn a single point against the "big" clubs in five tries.
Lambert's Lions saved themselves two years ago because they got results — 20 points from the last 24 on offer — against the other struggling teams in the division.
When Villa walked into Goodison Park two years ago, they sat mired in the relegation places, staring down 14 matches to save themselves.
Today? Villa walk into the KC in nearly the same situation.
It's time. Tonight, Villa have to get a result.
They must save themselves again.