Villa travel to The Hawthorns this weekend in far better shape than most had expected. Indeed this match had looked set to be more than just a derby fixture as both sides flirted with the idea of a relegation dogfight. With fears of doom and gloom allayed by improved form for both teams – fans can focus upon the pride and passion that a local clash brings. And who knows? It might even be enjoyable!
Many raised an eyebrow when the Albion parted company with the steady Roberto Di Matteo earlier this season. Di Matteo had worked hard to drag the club back to the Premiership and had also pulled off a much lauded win at the Emirates. However, early season form gave way and the Albion wasted no time in releasing the Italian in favour of the sacked Liverpool boss Roy Hodgson.
This has proved to be nothing short of a master-stroke with Hodgson being exactly the type of manager that they needed. He is experienced in the true sense of the word, straightforward but also with an eye for the technical aspects of the game – his tenure has seen WBA all but certainly guarantee themselves top flight football next season. And most would rather play them than West Ham on a Monday night in November.
Villa had a similar decision to make in January after a dismal first half to the season and little or nothing to suggest there being a marked improvement. However, Houllier was backed and things looked to be coming together. A dip in form threatened to reintroduce squeeky bums for the natives, but the class of Darren Bent, a genius purchase by Gerard will see him through until the summer.
Health scares for the boss aside, Villa are in steady form and need not go to The Hawthorns greatly concerned. Whilst not setting the world alight with drab end of season fixtures such as against Stoke last weekend, the club has enough about it to send a reminder to the Albion about their standing in regional football. As man for man, Villa have a far superior squad.
And that is said without pomp, circumstance or whilst wearing the claret tinted spectacles.
There is probably only one player who could add something to the Villa and that’s Odemwingie. I look at him and he looks like a more complete, although much older, version of Agbonlahor. Going into the match this Saturday the at times ropey Villa defence cannot allow him a sniff of goal. Odemwingie looks the real deal when it comes to finishing, and is without doubt their main threat. And Jerome Thomas? A tricky looking player, but nobody would swap him for either Ashley Young or Stewart Downing…would they?
The biggest question is always what Villa defence will turn up.
Kyle Walker’s confidence has ebbed of late after being caught out a couple of times but he remains an exceptional talent. His attacking play excites and adds to our flair and creativity. Defensively, he does need work. James Collins is our marmite. Richard Dunne can be solid if correctly fueled and the return of Luke Young at fullback has served to address worries at right back (although he is left footed..only at Villa).
In the middle one would assume that McCallister will pursue with Reo-Coker and Petrov for the rough and tumble of the derby. Coker breaks up play wonderfully and so long as Petrov is within five feet of him he can probably link up the play. Makoun will sit in reserve as an able and competent act to call upon as required. It would be unusual of Ashley Young to assume anything beyond his usual floating role and Downing will nibble away at their full backs, starting on the right, perplexingly.
Villa could decide to throw Bent up as the lone striker in the hope that he and Young could reproduce some of their fine England form. That would also provide for an extra midfield option. Alternatively, and hopefully, we will consider supporting Bent who thrives with a bit of company. A chemistry with any sort of a partner has yet to be tested, but the physical presence of Heskey might give Albion cause for concern as it did Stoke last time out. The other option is of course Agbonlahor, who has had an indifferent season having been farmed out on the wing for long periods.
A win would be welcome. Not just for local pride, but it would see Villa rise to potentially 8th and with Wigan up next would allow for some damage limitation before the final fixtures against Liverpool/Arsenal.
Prediction Corner: 1-0 to Villa.