After two very encouraging results and performances for Aston Villa, with back-to-back wins against Norwich and Brighton, the all too real prospect of facing the footballing elite over the next 2 weekends beckons.
This weekend Villa travel to the Ethiad Stadium to face Premier League champions Manchester City before hosting Champions League winners Liverpool on the following Saturday at Villa Park. Sandwiched in-between that is of course the mouth watering League Xup tie at home to Wolves, in what promises to be a huge 7 days for Villa fans.
Going into the season, these 2 games were the ones I was dreading. Both of these sides were exceptional last season, completely dominating the Premier League and in Liverpool’s case, Europe as well. They are led by arguably the 2 best coaches in world football, Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, who have managed to take the high standards at both clubs onto another level, over the past two or three seasons.
For a newly promoted club there is something very daunting about these two fixtures. Both Man City and Liverpool have become accustomed to effortlessly swatting away all comers of late, albeit with the odd mishap here and there. They possess and abundance of match winning talent, throughout their squads, so even when they are not quite clicking, they have players capable of individual magic to punish teams who do not take their opportunities
Villa’s first experience of this was against Arsenal last month. Despite controlling the game for an hour and taking the lead twice and being a man up, we eventually succumbed to pressure and a moment of quality from their talisman Aubameyang. Of course the referee and VAR played their part that day, but the overriding feeling was that ‘this is what we’re dealing with now’. Whilst it is possible to go toe-to-toe with a top team on any given day, the extra quality which these teams possess will often come to the fore and often there is no legislating for it.
The next couple of weeks has the potential to drive home that message even more, as hopes around a favourable Villa result seem to rest on City and Liverpool having off days. Having said that, there is also much to be hopeful for from a Villa perspective.
It can be confidently said that since that Arsenal match, our team has grown hugely and learned some harsh but necessary lessons. Obviously winning games helps with this, but there is definitely a improved confidence and a feeling of belonging in the Premier League, coming from the players and head coach Dean Smith.
From the Norwich match, we saw a different approach to being ahead, as the players went on to rack up 5 goals, rather that nervously dropping deep as had been the case before. Further to this against Brighton, there was an unwavering belief that the winning goal would come and whilst the crowd became agitated with a perceived lack of urgency, the players seemed calm and happy to continue to poke at the Brighton defence to force the opening. Even without that Matt Targett winner late in injury time, we should regard this a positive, as a less confident team would have resorted to launching it into the mixer, rather than pursing the winner through quality, possession and probing
Further to this we are witnessing the long awaited arrival of Jack Grealish in the Premier League. Moving into a more advanced ‘free role’, his last three performances against Burnley, Norwich and Brighton have been quite masterful. He is now playing with the effortless grace that Villa fans have become accustomed to, whilst also creating chances and scoring goals, having netted twice in his last 2 games. In the team generally, we are blessed with several players who can make a mark at this levels, Mings, McGinn and Nakamba to name just three. In Grealish though we have a talent who can be our Aubameyang, De Bruyne or Salah, if his productivity can continue to match his ability.
As frightening as facing these wonderful football team might be, the feeling that shines through is how great it is to be competing at this level again. Whilst we have been out of the top flight for three seasons, in truth we stopped competing the day Martin O’Neill left the club and we have effectively been in hibernation since then. Whilst we may not have too many expectations for picking up points over the next two matches, we should watch on with pride, but also interest to judge the progress which the club and team have made since Dean Smith took over. A year ago a double header against the English and European champions would have been a pipe dream, but it has now become a reality.
There is a chance of annihilation or at least a sound beating and that can happen against these elite teams. However, I expect Villa to give a good account of themselves and enable us to reflect on some positives, whatever the results turn out to be. The away fans will undoubtedly sing their lungs out for 90 minutes at the Ethiad and I would like to think at home a week later, we will emulate that and in that case, who knows?