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xV: Villa lend Fulham a helping hand, move closer to securing top-six finish

Aston Villa got a huge bounce-back win Tuesday night against Cardiff City, but the result was more consequential for what it did to the table, sliding Fulham into second and dropping Cardiff to third.

Aston Villa v Cardiff City - Sky Bet Championship
BIRMINGHAM, ENGLAND - APRIL 10: Sol Bamba of Cardiff City is challenged by Lewis Grabban of Aston Villa during the Sky Bet Championship match between Aston Villa and Cardiff City at Villa Park on April 10, 2018 in Birmingham, England.
Photo by Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

This is Expected Villa (xV), a column that ostensibly looks at the stats behind Villa’s results. The Claret and Blues bounced back from a tough defeat Saturday with a riveting 1-0 win against Cardiff City, dropping the Bluebirds to third in the table.

Real quick on the match

This was a good, tight match where both teams had their chances to win it. No matter which stats crew you like best, their expected goals analysis is probably going to show a small margin, which is to be expected when the two teams had similar shot profiles. Villa took 13 shots to Cardiff’s 11, but each club hit the target four times. Villa took nine shots from inside the penalty area, Cardiff eight. Each team hit the woodwork once, but luckily for Villa, theirs bounced in.

Hey, sometimes you’ve gotta be good enough to win these matches, and just how Villa were harmed Saturday by a wonder strike, they were helped by one Tuesday. Not too much more to the statistical analysis needed here, really — Jack Grealish hit a great strike to decide the match.

Villa weren’t the team that benefitted most from Tuesday’s win

There are a lot of ways you can spin Villa’s win Tuesday night. On one hand, it’s a great bounce-back result from a squad that really needed one after recent below-standard performances. On another, it moved the Claret and Blues to within one win of a guaranteed play-offs spot. If you’re a dreamer, you might be working through the permutations that can still get Villa to second (we’ll need help from Brentford and Norwich City this week).

Realistically, though, the biggest benefit for Villa might be one that really doesn’t involve the club at all: Fulham moving into second place.

Cardiff still have a match in hand on the Cottagers, but for the first time this season, Fulham sit in an automatic promotion spot, one point ahead of the Bluebirds. This was the best news of the night for Villa — in order to win promotion, Villa will need to get through two teams, one of which is likely to be Cardiff or Fulham in the one-off promotion final at Wembley. Would you rather try to beat the team that’s 16-4-0 in their last 20 and hasn’t lost in the league in 2018 or the one you just beat 1-0?

Give me the one we just beat 1-0 every day. Granted, there are a lot of schadenfreude-based reasons why I’d prefer to see Cardiff finish third and not second (Neil Warnock is my least favourite manager in England, and it’s not close, which is a hard feat given Tony Pulis is still in the game), but I’d much, much rather face Cardiff (or Pulis’ Middlesbrough when they troll Cardiff in the semi-final) than a Fulham side that looks particularly unstoppable. When push comes to shove, I’d pick Villa to win a one-off, neutral-site match for promotion against 21 of the other 23 teams. Wolves are already out of the running as a contender, and getting Fulham (the other one) out of the way would be particularly advantageous.

But let’s talk about being a dreamer anyway

Villa are at 33/1 on Sky Bet to finish second, which is… fair. There are an incredible number of things that would have to break Villa’s way for it to happen — Fulham would have to drop at least five, maybe six, points from their final four matches AND Cardiff would have to drop at least seven from their final five. This is incredibly unlikely.

It is, however, plausible, which kills me — we all know it won’t happen, but we can’t help but hold out hope that it will. Effectively, this outlook is pretty easy: Villa need to beat Leeds United on Friday night to close the gap to two points, then Cardiff (away to Norwich) and Fulham (home to Brentford) need to each drop points.

Cardiff aren’t playing good football, so seeing them finish the season 2-2-1 (which would allow Villa to get ahead of them) is plausible; they don’t have a particularly daunting run-in, but Norwich and Hull have each taken points off Villa recently, and Derby will actually have something tangible to play for when the two meet to make up their respective matches in hand.

Fulham go to Millwall next Friday, which given Millwall’s recent form, could be the most important Championship match of the season, deciding both second and sixth places. It’s easy to see how Millwall could steal a win off Fulham in that one, but it’s hard to see the Cottagers dropping points in their final two matches, against a Sunderland side that will likely already be down and a Birmingham City team that could have survival secured. That’s why it’s imperative that for Villa to have any chance, Brentford must get at least a point at Craven Cottage this week. (Side note, though: How hilarious would it be if Blues beat Fulham to send Villa up? A man can dream…)

Regardless, until we see what happens this week, Villa need to go out full throttle and take care of business Friday against Leeds. The most they can do right now is put some pressure on and hope the teams in front of them start to crack (or in Cardiff’s case, keep cracking).

Friday’s match is consequential in another way

Villa are currently 10 points clear of seventh-placed Middlesbrough. There are four matches to play.

With a win Friday night, Villa will secure a spot in the promotion play-offs.

Whenever Villa get the result to ensure a top-six finish, that will be something, though it feels small, to celebrate. Boro supporters would love to be going to the ground this weekend with a chance to punch their ticket to the play-offs, and Sunderland supporters would love to be literally any other club’s supporters. Throw in clubs like Norwich and our opponents, Leeds, for which much more was expected this season, and it’s hopefully easier to recognize that this is a good accomplishment.

Securing the top-six spot will, assuming things don’t break our way the rest of the weekend, allow Steve Bruce to rotate the team in the final three matches of the season. Huddersfield Town did this last year (rotating pretty much the entire XI for their Birmingham match) and rode it to promotion. Albert Adomah needs a rest to get his legs fresh for May, and so too will Robert Snodgrass. Get Henri Lansbury some game time, Josh Onomah, too, and perhaps get a couple youngsters into the final home match of the season against Derby. You never know when you’ll need to call on a reserve suddenly in the play-off final.