Aston Villa’s season resumes after the international break with the visit of David Moyes’ West Ham United to Villa Park, the Premier League’s standalone fixture on Sunday afternoon.
Unai Emery’s side are in excellent shape as they sit firmly ensconced in the division’s upper echelons, with five wins from eight matches putting them fifth, two points behind Manchester City in fourth and just four behind joint league leaders Liverpool and Tottenham Hotspur.
In their last game before the international fixtures, a calm 55th-minute finish from Pau Torres earned Villa a 1-1 draw at Molineux against West Midlands neighbours Wolves after Hwang Hee-Chan had opened the scoring for the hosts barely 90 seconds earlier.
Ollie Watkins came so close to winning the game for the Claret and Blues right at the death, but his header hit Jose Sa’s post and agonizingly went wide.
Still, the mental fortitude shown by Villa to force their way back into the game, having gone behind at a huge bogey ground such as Molineux and against the backdrop of fervent home support, is massively encouraging.
Three points against more traditionally difficult opponents in the Hammers on Sunday could lift Emery’s side up to fourth in the standings, depending on other results. Villa are eyeing their 12th straight home win in all competitions, a run that stretches back to their victory over Crystal Palace in the spring of last season.
West Ham travel north in buoyant mood themselves, having posted 14 points from their opening eight games. Four wins and two draws has them nicely perched in seventh, with Moyes’ side having carved out a clear identity for themselves as a low-possession but hugely effective counter-attacking team.
Just as against Brighton & Hove Albion at the Amex back in August, Michail Antonio, Jarrod Bowen, and James Ward-Prowse will fancy their chances of getting joy against a Villa team who are yet to nail down their defensive system, with Emery switching between a back four and a back three in recent games.
Ward-Prowse loves playing against Villa and scored two excellent free-kicks when Southampton ran out 4-2 away winners in the 2020-21 season.
The East Londoners generally have a terrific record at Villa Park, winning on the last three occasions by an aggregate score of 8-2.
In the corresponding fixture last season, a deflected Pablo Fornals strike 16 minutes from time sunk Steven Gerrard’s men 1-0 in August 2022.
A fourth-successive win in Birmingham for the Irons on Sunday would leapfrog them above Villa and into the top six.
Villa released a statement on Friday morning saying that Italian midfielder Nicolo Zaniolo is “training with the first-team as normal and is available for selection” whilst he co-operates with the Italian Football Federation following alleged illegal online betting activity.
Whether he is in the right frame of mind to feature on Sunday, however, is up to both Emery and the player as usual.
Jacob Ramsey, Alex Moreno, and Tim Iroegbunam are likely to remain out with ankle, thigh, and an unspecified injury, respectively.
Moyes is without full-backs Aaron Cresswell and Ben Johnson, who are struggling with thigh and hip injuries, respectively. Vladimir Coufal and Emerson will start for the Hammers in their absence, as they did against Newcastle United before the international break.
Lukasz Fabianski is likely to be out after suffering a knock in the win over Freiburg in the Europa League two weeks ago, so Alphonse Areola will keep his place between the sticks in place of the Polish goalkeeper.
Mexican international Edson Alvarez will continue his great axis with Ward-Prowse in midfield.
Aston Villa (3-4-2-1)
Martinez; Pau, Carlos, Konsa; Digne, Luiz, Kamara, Cash; McGinn, Diaby; Watkins
West Ham (4-2-3-1)
Areola; Emerson, Aguerd, Zouma, Coufal; Ward-Prowse, Alvarez; Paqueta, Soucek, Bowen; Antonio
It’s hard to bet against Emery’s men given their current rampant form on home soil. Despite West Ham previously thriving on this territory and having the players to hurt the hosts, home comforts may see a very well-oiled and confident Villa side over the line in a closely fought encounter.
Prediction: Aston Villa 2 West Ham United 1