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A slow start would seriously dent Villa’s promotion chances

The margins in this division that separate promotion-winning sides from those that don’t is paper thin. And that’s why it’s vital that Villa don’t get out to a slow start this weekend in Yorkshire.

Aston Villa v Middlesbrough - Pre-Season Friendly
Nathan Baker (r) celebrates with Tommy Elphick of Villa after scoring the opening goal during the pre- season friendly between Aston Villa and Middlesbrough at Villa Park on July 30, 2016 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images

That Aston Villa are tasked with a new challenge this season shouldn’t be news to any supporters. Unlike previous years, where we could quibble over the specifics of the goal — though recently, it always ended up being to avoid relegation — this year’s goal is pretty straightforward: promotion, at the first attempt.

But with that comes a vastly different challenge. Where in the past, Villa simply needed to hit a 40-point target over 38 matches to survive, this year, the Claret and Blues will instead have a different goal in mind; a 90-point target that should at least put Villa on the cusp of automatic promotion.

Let’s think about that 90-point target in a different way, though. In order to win 90 points, a club can drop no more than 48 points in a 46-match season.

Effectively, take everything you knew about survival and turn it on its head. That’s how you win promotion.

When a club’s fighting against relegation, it can go through long spells of relative futility, only to be saved by a sudden run of form. These so-called survival “miracles” are well-documented: Fulham in 2008 and Leicester City in 2015 are perhaps the best-known recent examples of sides that putzed around all season only to tear the league up over the last handful of matchdays, ensuring survival.

But in the same way that one great run can make your season a success when you’re fighting relegation, one poor run can ruin an otherwise fantastic season; just look at Brighton a year ago. The Seagulls opened on a run of 21 unbeaten, but their maiden loss of the season set off a five-match run of poor form that saw Brighton take just one point.

Brighton lost just once in the final 20 matches of the season, but they finished outside the automatic promotion places on 89 points, losing out on goal differential to Middlesbrough. Sheffield Wednesday took care of them in the play-off, and that’s why Villa fans have a nice holiday in Brighton to look forward to this year.

So despite Villa’s side still being in flux — Roberto Di Matteo said the club have three bids out for players right now, with further exits likely — Sunday’s opener carries significant weight, more than any curtain-raiser has in recent memory for the Claret and Blues. If Villa lose away to Wednesday, they’ll have started by burning through three of those 48 “droppable” points.

Should results fail to materialize past Sunday — let’s say Villa only gain four points between Rotherham, Huddersfield, Derby County and Bristol City — you’d be looking at having ran through 11 of those 48 in the first five matches of the season. That would be… not great, Bob!

Clearly, one result doesn’t make or break a season — either way, we should remember that Sunday — but to act as if losses shouldn’t be worrying because it’s a “long season” completely misses the point of the thin margins that inherently exist in this division. To win automatic promotion, you can have no more than one serious run of poor form, and to leave it to the play-off is akin to buying a 1-in-4 chance of promotion. Just ask Derby or Brighton how their third-place finishes have panned out in recent years.

Now, just like anything in football, there’s a great counterargument to this idea: Roy Keane’s Sunderland, 10 years ago. Playing in the Championship after a meagre Premier League campaign where they couldn’t hit 20 points (sound familiar?), the Mackems started their run in the second tier as poorly as one can, losing the first four matches of the season and nine of the first 16.

They won promotion that year, as champions, on 88 points.

But do you really want to make it that hard on yourself?

By tomorrow evening, Villa will have either taken a great step toward that 90-point target or burned a handful of the 48 they can afford to drop. I know which one I’d prefer.