When Aston Villa host Burton Albion on Boxing Day, they’ll be playing the 23rd match of the Championship campaign, the midway point of the season. The Claret and Blues will have seen everyone once and, with another win, won’t be too far behind the pace likely required for a promotion play-off spot. And if you extrapolate Steve Bruce’s form as Villa manager (21 points in 11 matches) to the remaining 24 matches, you’d see Villa reach 76-77 points, probably good enough to finish sixth.
But beyond that — and admitting Villa’s form will likely take a dip at some point — there’s another thing working in the squad’s favour as the calendar starts to turn to 2017 in a couple weeks: the home/away balance.
Think back to where Villa have played the top sides this campaign. While the Claret and Blues hosted Newcastle United and Huddersfield Town, two of the top four, most of the class of the Championship has yet to visit Villa Park. That means Brighton & Hove Albion, Reading, Leeds United, Sheffield Wednesday and others all have to make the trek to visit Villa.
All in all, of the 12 sides ahead of Villa (and, coincidentally, in the top half of the table), nine of them still have to come to Villa Park in the second half of the season, with Leeds starting the parade on 29 December. What it means, in short enough terms, is that Villa have a huge opportunity in the second half of the season.
Most of the Championship’s best teams will come to Villa Park, where it will be easier for Bruce’s side to pick up points. That’s a good opportunity.
On the flip, most of the away matches will be used up against bottom-half sides, where (given you have to play away), it’s easier to win points. That’s also a good spot. Of Villa’s remaining 11 away matches, seven of them are against the bottom eight sides in the table. You’d like to think that a Villa side chasing promotion can win a majority of those, draw one or two, and walk away with a significant away form improvement — just like they did Sunday at Queens Park Rangers, the one bottom-eight side they have played away.
Of course, this could all go poorly. Playing the better sides at home might be tough for Villa, and what should be “expected” home points evaporate during the second half. That would see Villa well off the pace needed for a promotion push.
But given Villa are going to be playing “catch up” for the foreseeable future, I think it’s more apt to describe the second-half fixture slate as a blessing. When Villa play their competitors for a top-six spot the rest of the way — and these are matches they’ll really, really need to win — they’ll more often than not have the advantage of the Holte End and more than 30,000 Villa supporters. And Villa’s home form has been solid, with five wins, five draws and no losses.
It’s the type of thing that can earn you a few more points in the second half than you won in the first — and that’s exactly what Villa will likely have to do after Boxing Day to have a fighting chance at the top six.