During yesterday's stomping of Sunderland at the Stadium of Light, Tim Sherwood's first substitution raised a lot of eyebrows: Carlos Sanchez replacing Ciaran Clark. Clark hadn't taken a knock and had continued to be Villa's best defensive player. So why was he coming off in 64th minute? Well, it was likely due to the fact that, with Aston Villa up by four Clark wasn't needed anymore, and being on the pitch all he could accomplish was picking up another yellow.
And since Ciaran Clark currently sits on nine yellows, that would mean a two-match ban. With the back line still a shambles due to injury, Villa can't afford to be missing Clark during next weekend's match against Swansea. If we knew that Ron Vlaar, Nathan Baker, or Philippe Senderos were going to be healthy, then maybe it wouldn't matter. But we can't rely on the health of any of those players. Yes, Alan Hutton will be back and that will free up Leandro Bacuna, and if either of Aly Cissokho or Kieran Richardson return Matthew Lowton could be available, but neither of those players are center backs. Clark, the team's undisputed best defender lately, is absolutely needed.
But then we enter a strange little area where he might not be. Villa can absolutely beat Swansea next weekend and grab themselves another massive three points. Regardless of what you think of the team right now, however, they are unlikely to get much from trips to Manchester United and Tottenham in successive weekends. Two points from that spell would be massive, and not even zero would be a huge let down. Villa don't need those wins to survive, they're just icing on the cake.
But the match after that is a bit more important. No, the FA Cup semi-final will not help Villa avoid relegation, but they are close enough to winning England's second-most prestigious title that they'd be crazy not to go all-out for it. And if Ciaran Clark picks up his tenth yellow in either of the United or Spurs matches, he would miss the trip to Wembley. The cut-off for the 10-yellows-gets-you-2-matches rule is the second Sunday of April, or April 12 this year. After that Clark can pick up his 10th without worry.
With the two away matches being give-aways and the FA Cup final being so important, I think the club have two realistic choices here. I'm working under the assumption that Clark must play at Wembley. Either Clark should avoid a card against Swansea and sit against United and Spurs, or he should just pick up a card against Swansea.
Either option frees Clark to play without an overabundance of caution next weekend, and either assures that he can play at Wembley. The only difference is that if we allow for Clark to get a yellow against Swansea, Tim Sherwood can let him know that he's allowed to play with a little extra aggressiveness. If Clark isn't worried about the yellow and the suspensions, he can play all-out in a match that Aston Villa absolutely should win. Make a plan to sit Clark (one way or another) for United and Spurs and you get two benefits: better play against Swansea in a high-stakes match, and an assurance that the club's best defender will be at Wembley.
So go for it, Ciaran. Get that yellow against Swans. It'll be the only time you have fans cheering for you getting suspended.