Aston Villa enjoyed a purple patch of form during the last week in picking up maximum points from their three games in seven days however, there is no time to rest on our laurels and December’s fixture list looks as if it could provide a stern test for us.
Whilst I don’t think it will necessarily make or break our season, it will certainly give us a better idea of how good we actually are.
Somewhat routine home victories against Sunderland and Ipswich followed on from an impressive away win at Queens Park Rangers and has left the Villans with a firm grip on fourth place and looking upwards at a possible automatic promotion push.
The last week has been particularly impressive thanks to several recent injury blows. The game at Q.P.R was our first match without influential captain John Terry and I think it’s fair to say that many supporters fancied us to get shown up without him marshalling our defence. It hasn’t happened so far.
At the other end of the pitch, Jonathan Kodjia has been ruled out for the rest of the season due to aggravating his ankle injury again and Scott Hogan may not return from a stomach problem much before Christmas.
Throw into the mix yet another layoff for Mile Jedinak and the Villa squad will be going into this crucial period with a solid spine of a team unavailable.
So far, the players have coped admirably. However, the quality of the opposition must be taken into account. Q.P.R looked very ordinary indeed and a shadow of the side that claimed impressive victories over both Wolverhampton Wanderers and Sheffield United. Sunderland mustered a spirited fightback but ultimately are ridiculously low on quality. While Ipswich are the very epitome of a mid-table side who offer very little after going a goal down.
Villa’s December fixtures are as follows; Leeds United (A), Millwall (H), Derby County (A), Sheffield United (H), Brentford (A) and Middlesbrough (A).
For me, straight away alarm bells start ringing for three of those games.; the away trips to promotion rivals Leeds, Derby and Middlesbrough. On paper, they look horrible and they’re exactly the sort of games that Villa tends to falter in.
Leeds are a fairly inconsistent side and can one week play scintillating football and the next week look like relegation candidates. Despite a strong start they endured a shockingly bad October but have shown signs of recovery and have managed to keep in touch with the pack chasing a playoff place. Of these three tough trips, Elland Road is perhaps where the most joy is to be had.
It is far from a fortress, with three teams prevailing here so far already. Interestingly, they seem to struggle at home against stronger opposition with both Derby and Sheffield United walking away with three points and that gives hope that Villa can replicate that trend.
The other two trips north look much tougher. Almost conversely to Leeds, Derby’s start was somewhat stuttering, much like our own. However, since mid-October they have really clicked into gear, winning six of their last eight, including an emphatic 3-0 victory up at Middlesbrough.
Visiting teams to Pride Park don’t get much change and Gary Rowett has the Rams playing some good football, scoring plenty of goals in the process. This is the sort of game where the effects of our injuries could really be highlighted. For me, getting anything here would be a really good result and I’d take a point right now.
Middlesbrough is a wildly erratic side that seems to find patches of form here and there and a streak at the end of October into November saw them make headway up the league. Yet similar to Villa at times, especially how we were last season, they seem unable to string a run of results together for a prolonged period of time and no doubt they will want a strong December themselves.
At the Riverside, they look decent but are beatable, as Derby showed in serving up that 3-0 lesson. Perhaps tellingly, apart from a 1-0 victory against Sheffield United on the second day of the season, Boro have failed to beat a team currently placed higher than 16th in the league, suggesting they haven’t quite got enough in their locker to overcome the big boys in the league.
This is also a concern that I also have about our beloved Villa. Do we have enough to beat the teams in and around us? So far, we haven’t shown that to be the case.
Losses to Wolves and Cardiff away shouldn’t be cause for immediate concern. After all, they currently occupy the first and second spot but when we add into the mix draws with Bristol City and Boro themselves back in September, can we be confident of having enough to take meaningful points off the teams battling for promotion with us? Or are we just beating the teams that we are expected to?
Derby, Boro and Leeds all currently sit sixth, seventh and eight respectively. Throw into the mix that home game against Sheffield United, currently in third, and I think we’ll have a much better idea of where we’re really at come to the end of December.
The Blades appear to just be wobbling just slightly and a home fixture against them may be coming up just at the right time. Don’t forget that this is a team who were only promoted from League One just this season. For them to sustain a promotion push into the new year would be extraordinary. Personally, I think there is a very good chance that we will meet them at an opportune time.
Whilst no game should be taken lightly, it would be disappointing not to see off Millwall at Villa Park. That must absolutely be earmarked for three points with the Lions looking to be involved in a relegation battle come the second half of the season.
Which leaves the trip to Brentford as our other December fixture. Their current league position of 15th may indicate this is a game that we should be confident of winning, but with just one defeat in their last nine matches and one defeat at Griffin Park all season, the Bees could perhaps provide the toughest test of all. A win here would be a very good result indeed.
So what would be good points haul from these games? With eighteen points up for grabs, I think anywhere between ten and twelve would represent a very good return. A quadruple whammy of away games in a month is a tall order, especially at teams in good form which all four are to varying degrees right now.
Our injuries must also be taken into consideration. Terry’s absence at the back may start telling as the month wears on and whilst Albert Adomah’s goalscoring form has been excellent, we need other players to start finding the net also now. Keinan Davis is due a couple but Josh Onomah, Conor Hourihane and Robert Snodgrass should all be looking to ease the burden on the youngster’s shoulders.
If we harbour any real intent to push on for automatic promotion, then we need to be taking points off the teams that are around us in the league. These fixtures provide a perfect opportunity to do so.
It’s going to be a tough December. But these teams won’t be looking forward to facing an in-form Aston Villa either.