With just eight games to go, it would be fair to say we have approached the business end of the Championship season. The season has not gone to plan for Aston Villa; in pre-season, they were one of – if not the – favourites to clinch promotion to the Premier League. We are well into March and the automatic spots are all but gone. Villa sits 17 points and four places away with only 24 points to play for.
Despite harbouring bad memories of the playoffs from last season – after a 10-man Fulham emerged victorious in a closely fought encounter at Wembley – the ‘Villans’ would be delighted to end up in the lottery once again.
The season started well for Steve Bruce’s men with back to back wins over Hull City and Wigan but then followed a period of inconsistency where form was a real issue. Bruce had the opportunity to arrest the poor run but following a 3-3 draw with then bottom Preston North End at the beginning of October Bruce was sacked. One week later and Dean Smith arrived from Brentford along with last season’s captain, John Terry, who was named assistant.
Smith joins Villa
Smith won his first game in charge, at home to Swansea in front of a packed Villa Park. The subsequent defeats to Norwich and Queens Park Rangers were quickly forgotten as Villa took nine points from nine including a 4-2 victory over city rivals Birmingham City on 25th November.
Unfortunately, it was a false dawn as the Claret and Blue faithful didn’t see another home win until late January when a brace from top scorer Tammy Abraham saw us get past rock bottom Ipswich Town. But, again, it was a one-off and heading into March it looked like the lack of consistency would cause Villa to miss out on the prospect of another shot at promotion.
Nonetheless, four wins on the spin, three against teams in and around them and one against their Birmingham rivals, and they find themselves in sixth place and with their destiny in their own hands.
The Championship run-in
The final eight games see them take on three struggling sides: Rotherham, Bolton and Millwall. Two sides who still have playoff aspirations themselves – Bruce’s new team Sheffield Wednesday, which will carry added spice, and Bristol City. Mid-table Blackburn follows and then they finish the season with two matches against automatic promotion contenders, Leeds United and Norwich City.
If Villa can break the pattern of their season and maintain a level of high performance not only are they capable of beating any team in the division but they’ll finish in the top six and go into the playoffs as the most in-form team. And, probably, favourites to win promotion.
It is worth noting that there are around seven teams, down to Nottingham Forest in eleventh, who will be confident of sneaking into the play-off positions if they can string a run together. For Villa, failure is simply not an option.
Losing star players
Another year in the Championship will almost certainly see star players and academy products like Jack Grealish move on, goal machine Tammy Abraham – on loan from Chelsea – will not be back at this level next season and due to Chelsea’s transfer ban, he might return to Stamford Bridge.
With parachute payments in danger of disappearing the club will have a decision to make; go for bust or ship out their star quality whilst they can still command a top price. Players like Connor Hourihane and John McGinn might be tempted by lower end Premiership clubs or teams in the Championship with looser purse strings, but things are far from over and you can count on twists and turns between now and the season close.
Still, with the quality and experience, Villa has in their ranks don’t be surprised to see them get over the line, even if the horse race finishes in a tight photo finish.
The time is now. Are we up for the challenge?