Will Villa break into the top four?
On Boxing Day 2008, Aston Villa came back from an (undeserved) two goal deficit to rescue a 2-2 draw at home to Arsenal. Coupled with the amazing 2-0 win at the Emirates in November, Villa had taken 4 points off their nearest rivals for fourth place, and looked in a strong position to break up the Big Four’s dominance over the league. Villa continued this good form through the new year, racking up wins at Blackburn, Sunderland and Portsmouth. With Arsenal seemingly struggling, with a run of 0-0 draws, all Martin O’Neills team had to do was hold on and see out the remainder of the season.
However, February and March have seen Villa’s form slide dramatically and now it looks like instead of breaking into the Champions League for the first time, Villa will instead be embroiled in a battle with Everton for sixth place. This slump in the league has been sandwiched by a disappointing 3-1 defeat to Everton in the FA Cup, and a spectacular backfiring of O’Neill’s decision of rest players for the UEFA Cup match against CSKA Moscow, in which Villa were soundly beaten 2-0 on the night, and 3-1 on aggregate.
While a drop to fifth is not the end of the world (ask any Villa fan if they would have been happy with fifth in August and they will say yes) it is the manner in which fourth place has been surrendered. What should have been a routine win over Stoke at Villa Park turned into a frustrating 2-2 draw. This was followed by a 2-0 defeat at Man City. Worse was to follow, with another frustrating home result, this time a 2-1 defeat to Spurs. And on March 22nd I saw the worst performance on the season, and possibly for a few years, when Villa were humbled by a resurgent Liverpool. With a tough away fixture at Old Trafford to face, as well as a home match against Everton, Villa are up against it slightly over the next couple of weeks. Arsenal welcome back many first team players, and have begun to pick up the form that most people would exect. On the other hand, Villa have only the returns of Martin Laursen and Wilfred Bouma to look forward to. Many fans will be hoping it is not too late by then.
So are Villa fans to be disappointed come the final day of the season? Will Arsenal retain their place among Europe’s elite? Or can Martin O’Neill, arguably the most talented and respected manager in English football, inspire his talented but small squad over the final straight and into the position that their earlier performances has merited? Whether you are an Villain, a Gooner or a neutral, it will make for exciting viewing in a season that has been filled with excitement.