This has been a bizarre season. One in which we seem to have played Blackburn every week, have undergone quite radical on/off pitch changes and find ourselves fifth bottom and three points from the relegation zone. And things had appeared to be improving!?
Conceding a sloppy late goal against Fulham and not keeping our heads against Blackpool has meant we have stuttered in our recovery. If we had managed to hold onto the lead in either of those matches, the additional two points would have lifted us to a welcome mid-table obscurity. As it is, we find ourselves this weekend embarking upon the first stages of a relegation dogfight.
For whilst I believe we have enough about us to stay up, there are some peripheral issues to consider. Firstly is our proximity to the drop zone. And with Bolton and Wolves coming after Blackburn, Houllier must reasonably be aiming to secure a minimum of 7-9 points from these fixtures. Because we are getting to the stage where we need to secure our survival rather than meander as we are towards the line.
Which brings me to Blackpool and their astonishing result against beating Tottenham 3-0. Now, you will find few admirers of Holloway here but Villa are going to need to dig deep and win ugly (more than likely at Bolton) to stick our flag in the ground and secure our status. And this approach must begin on Saturday with victory against Blackburn Rovers at Villa Park.
Blackburn’s last visit was a little over a fortnight ago in the FA Cup which saw a largely second string Villa team despatch Rovers with ease. It was a similar story in the Carling Cup encounter in September. Blackburn’s victory over Villa this season came in the league at Ewood Park and was a prime example of our on-going defensive frailties mixed with some questionable goalkeeping that day.
Villa go into the game minus Carlos Cueller through injury and the increasingly important Jean II Makoun. Whilst it is always anyone’s guess if the assured Cueller will make the team, Makoun’s name on the teamsheet was a given and he will be a massive loss. The question is who will come in? Will Houllier opt for loan signing Michael Bradley – lacking in match fitness and Premiership experience? Or will we see a return to the squad to the much faded – but committed – Stilyan Petrov?
The squad as a whole needs to step up for this match as it could represent a turning point in our season. Defeat will genuinely leave us looking over our shoulder. Games against sides like Wolves, Everton & West Ham would become absolute must wins – and the added pressure would be totally unwelcome. If we beat Blackburn we give ourselves breathing space and the license to approach upcoming games with the ability to put genuine distance between us and our opponents.
Big games are needed from Young, Downing, Agbonlahor and Bent – it’s time to find our rhythm. Ashley Young needs to drop the petulance, Downing need to find his early season consistency with Gabby and Bent need to continue linking up with pace and goals. As for all of the bemoaning of the new system employed by Houllier, it does cause the opposition immense difficulty over ninety minutes. It is a lack of composure and/or thoughtfulness that is often our undoing – because – we have all of the craft, creativity and potential goals one could wish for.
And thus the back four will need to find some evidence of form. Dunne is improved of late but not on par with recent seasons, Collins remains erratic and Clark/Walker can be suspect at fullback for differing reasons. The less said about a back four that will near certainly undergo a major overhaul in the summer, the better. All that matters is that they step up in the interim.
So it’s very much a case of ironing out individual errors at the back and taking our chances upfront – which is probably a statement that will define Villa’s 2010/11 season.
A scrappy encounter that will be watched largely in trepidation. 2-1 to Villa.