Little over a fortnight after the Championship play-off final, depending on the outcome against Fulham at Wembley Stadium on 26th May, Aston Villa fans will either be celebrating their return to the Premier League or facing another season in the second tier of English football.
Whatever the outcome of that encounter, while most of the Villa squad will be turning their attention towards holiday plans or thinking ahead to next season, for three players, the season isn’t quite over yet. Getting ready to feature on the biggest football stage of them all, Mile Jedinak, Ahmed Elmohamady and Birkir Bjarnason will be turning their attention towards the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
The trio of players boasts a wealth of club and international experience, which will undoubtedly prove important to the hopes of their respective nations at the upcoming tournament. After underlining their importance in the promotion push for Steve Bruce’s side, all three will be hoping to take their positive form with them to the World Cup.
BIRKIR BJARNASON – ICELAND
It’s taken Bjarnason a while to adapt to life at Aston Villa but, in fairness, he also had to settle into a somewhat frustrating role as a utility player, filling in various positions where he perhaps wasn’t ideally suited. Keen to play and make his mark in the team, the fiercely competitive Icelandic midfielder was inevitably left pondering his future at the club.
However, after seriously considering quitting and seeking a move elsewhere, with Villa expected to do much better in the Championship and the team has suffered a dismal run of form in December, Bjarnason made a remarkable individual comeback and forced his way back into Bruce’s plans in January, as form and results began to improve.
Repaying the faith of his manager, the 29-year-old was a prominent figure in the second half of the season, playing in central midfield roles that best suited his abilities, making a much more effective contribution. Earning himself the “Thor” nickname from Holte End fans, as much for his thunderbolt shots from distance, as his similarity in looks to the Marvel movies superhero, Bjarnason couldn’t have asked for a better time to hit his peak in form.
He will undoubtedly be buoyed by his quality performances over recent months, which will be good news for Iceland, as they seek to qualify from an exceedingly difficult World Cup Group D featuring Argentina, Croatia and Nigeria. Nevertheless, they’ll be hoping for a repeat of their Euro 2016 exploits, where a superb team spirit and amazing fans captured everyone’s imagination.
AHMED ELMOHAMADY – EGYPT
While most of the media has been swept up in the frenzy over the stellar performances of Mohamed Salah at Liverpool, another Egyptian has been quietly and consistently making an important contribution at Aston Villa. Elmohamady might not have set the world on fire like his fellow countryman this season but he has been one of the team’s most trusted players this season.
Demonstrating flexibility down the flank for Villa, whether it’s playing in his customary right-back slot or in more advanced attacking wide midfield, the 30-year-old has genuinely been one of Bruce’s most dependable players throughout the 2017-18 Championship campaign. Only James Chester and Sam Johnstone have made more appearances this season, while Elmohamady has featured in 44 games prior to the play-off final at Wembley.
Bruce knew exactly what he was getting when he urged the club to sign Elmohamady last summer, having been a permanent fixture in the side when both were at Hull City. During his tenure as Villa manager, that level of utmost confidence in the Egypt international has remained steadfastly intact and, though he rarely hits the headlines, the consistency of his performances has earned great respect and praise amongst the fans as a genuine ‘Mr. Reliable’ their team can always depend on.
The press has dubbed Salah as the ‘King of Egypt’ ahead of the World Cup, with his ability and form this season seen as crucial if the Pharaohs are to progress from Group A at the tournament, with stiff competition from hosts Russia, along with Uruguay and Nigeria. However, the Liverpool star is unlikely to shine as brightly for his country without the support of his teammates, particularly the partnership with Elmohamady down the right flank, which could give the Villa player the headlines he so richly deserves.
MILE JEDINAK – AUSTRALIA
He may not have made as many appearances as his Villa colleagues, with 26 Championship outings in total, but few would argue with the important role Jedinak has played throughout the season. Especially during the business end of the campaign with the Australian tapping into his wealth of experience, contributing to the promotion cause and leading by example, producing excellent performances in both defence and midfield.
Regarded as Bruce’s ‘go-to guy’ in times of great need, the away leg of the play-off encounter with Middlesbrough was just the sort of game in which Jedinak thrives. Not only was he the man of the match, the 33-year-old also scored the only goal of the game, doubling his personal tally for the season and giving Villa a vitally important advantage. The second leg at Villa Park ended in a 0-0 stalemate, enough to reach the play-off final against Fulham, with the Australian once again his team’s best player on the night.
On and off the pitch, Jedinak is the kind of experienced motivator that any team loves to have. Even when he’s not starting games or even featuring, you can guarantee he’ll be there encouraging his teammates, whether it’s before matches or during training sessions. When playing, he’s the type of player managers also enjoy having in their ranks, barking out orders and relaying instructions to those around him.
A veteran of two previous tournaments in 2010 and 2014, the 2018 World Cup in Russia could be the last for Australian national team captain Jedinak, but he doesn’t have plans to quit the international scene just yet. Having helped his country win the 2015 Asian Cup, the force is still very much with ‘Jedi’ and the bearded one wants to help them win it again in 2019. “I will give everything I can for as long as I can,” he insisted, just before the Socceroos qualified for the World Cup. Good news for both club and country.