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Under Bruce, Villa are excelling against the Championship’s top sides

Aston Villa’s results at Reading, Birmingham and Brighton are the most encouraging signs of life yet this season.

Brighton & Hove Albion v Aston Villa - Sky Bet Championship
Jack Grealish of Aston Villa applauds the fans after the Sky Bet Championship match between Brighton & Hove Albion and Aston Villa at Amex Stadium on November 18, 2016 in Brighton, England.
Photo by Dan Istitene/Getty Images

Aston Villa just finished their toughest five-match stretch of the season. No, really.

Take a look back at the run of fixtures Steve Bruce’s side has endured over the past five weeks: Villa travelled to third-place Reading, fifth-placed Birmingham and second-placed Brighton, and in the middle of it all, hosted eighth-placed Fulham (and bottom-three Blackburn).

Three road matches, all against top-five opposition, with another tough home match tacked on. And yet, the Villa came away from the stretch with 11 points, taking care of business both times at Villa Park and snagging a win at Reading to add to one-point performances at Birmingham and Brighton. Add it all together, and a stretch that could’ve seen Villa’s promotion chances buried has done the complete opposite — it’s proven that, yes, this Villa team is one of the best in the league. Not what it was showing under Roberto Di Matteo.

Despite sitting 16th, the Claret and Blues have narrowed the gap to the playoff spots, down to just five points. While that number isn’t likely to suddenly drop, Villa are doing exactly what’s required by eating away at that total, even in some of the season’s toughest fixtures.

Villa’s next four fixtures kind of continue this trend. While the Claret and Blues host Cardiff and Wigan over the next few weeks, two matches against lower-end sides, trips to seventh-placed Leeds and sixth-placed Norwich await Villa in the near future. (So, yes, if you’re following along at home, Villa will have played five straight road matches against sides currently in the top seven.)

This, of course, presents another great opportunity for Villa. Picking up six points, or four at the least, in these next couple home games will be vital, while continuing to get results against top sides away from home would significantly help the promotion push.

But at the end of the day, we’re finally starting to see this team play to the potential of its talent. Steve Bruce has made the necessary adjustments to mask Villa’s relative (to the rest of the side, at least) weaknesses in midfield, while Villa are finally — for perhaps the first time in several years — a team opponents would rather not play. That’s admittedly a nice place to be.

Villa still have a pretty long way back to the top six, and we should be careful not to let expectations for the rest of the year get too ambitious. But right now, Villa are routinely getting results against some of the Championship’s best opponents.

Given where we’ve been for so long, I’ll gladly take that any day.