Aston Villa’s controversial draw at Elland Road yesterday saw an end to the winning streak of ten games as Villa all but sealed 5th spot in the Championship and subsequently a place in the playoffs.
With two games to spare barring a major shock and goal swing it will be local rivals West Bromwich Albion that will face Dean Smith’s men over two legs.
Some were surprised to see such a strong side picked for the game against Leeds United, who themselves will feel frustrated to have missed out upon automatic promotion.
A measure of Villa’s recent purple patch is the gap that has been closed since the 1-1 draw away to Stoke City. This has been seen by many as the turning point with reports of a heated changing room exchange between the squad and the staff as tough words were dished out.
After the draw, Villa had played 34 games and had 45 points. Whereas neighbours Albion were on 60 points.
Add in the 2-0 reverse at Villa Park against them a week beforehand and it’s pretty remarkable.
Many of us wrote the season off, but 31 points acquired since have shot Villa up the table and people have more than taken notice.
It may seem strange of me to say this, but the winning run being over in some ways could be a blessing in disguise.
The constant devil’s advocate of ‘what if we win one more game’ and the extension of the infamous grim reaper picture showing our previous victims and the next in wait. Before long it would become a tapestry!
For me it now means full focus, attention and professionalism ahead of the playoffs.
Villa’s final fixture sees them come up against Norwich City, a side that have only lost 6 games all season with a never say die attitude and you have to give them credit. Top scorers in the league and consistently grinding out results.
If Norwich were to slip up then Sheffield United could capitalise to capture the title as well as promotion.
For what it’s worth I’m a huge fan of Chris Wilder and although I wish it could be us already there, they fully deserve it and I’m glad for him. His record is incredible, gaining promotion from the Northern Counties League with Alfreton Town, winning the Conference playoffs with Oxford United, League Two with Northampton Town and League One with Sheffield United before guiding them to the Premier League on Saturday.
It’s pretty amazing and on top of that you have to take in not just their budget, but the fact that several of the squad for Saturday’s game were involved in his first game in charge in League One when the Blades were languishing in mid table.
The Norwich City game will be a chance to rest players that are vital for the playoffs and obviously avoid another booking that would write them out of the playoff equation, most notably John McGinn.
It also has to be seen as a positive for the players who need a game and could very well be called upon in the playoffs should an injury or suspension occur.
The likes of Birkir Bjarnason, Keinan Davis and possibly young goalkeeper, Matija Sarkic are just some of the squad players who may take to the pitch.
A look ahead to West Bromwich Albion and it’s hard to take anything from the previous two meetings this season.
The away fixture at the Hawthorns saw Villa take the lead twice through Anwar El Ghazi before being pegged back by Dwight Gayle and late on through James Rodriguez and his hand.
The 2-0 loss at Villa Park was one of the worst performances seen by the Villa faithful this season. It should also be remembered that Jed Steer (sub), Anwar El Ghazi (unused sub) and of course Jack Grealish (injured) all players instrumental in our recent form, were missing from the starting line up.
The run of 12 unbeaten has seen a togetherness and a bond not seen between players for a long time and it will be a huge weapon in taking on the Baggies.
If you compare the sides purely on numbers, it’s hard to separate them.
Albion 80 points to Villa’s 76.
Albion have won 23 compared to Villa winning 20.
Villa losing only 9 times compared to Albion losing 11 times.
Both teams have scored over 80 goals and both have conceded exactly 59 goals.
Villa have kept a clean sheet 27% of their games as opposed to Albion’s 20%.
Villa have failed to score in 11% of games compared to Albion’s 16%.
There’s really not a lot in it and the key could be the word on most people’s lips. Momentum.
Despite the draw, Villa sit top of the form table. Villa have picked up 32 points from the last 12 games compared to Albion’s 20, with a goal difference of +18 to +2.
In terms of home form, Villa have gained 19 out of 24 points in their last 8 home games whereas Albion have picked up 17 points. They have however won their last five at home.
Away form sees Villa picking up 17 points compared to Albion’s 13 during the same period. The most interesting fact within this is Albion’s negative goal difference.
Also since mid-February, Villa have scored 25 goals and conceded just 7 (+18) whereas Albion have scored 19 (only 3 away) and conceded 17 (+2).
However, it must be said that complacency isn’t an option and you’d have to say you’d trust Dean Smith and his backroom staff to ensure that it doesn’t creep in. Albion have two consistent goal scorers in Dwight Gayle and James Rodriguez. They also have the impressive Matt Phillips who can shine along with youngster Rekeem Harper who has caught the eye of late.
It’s going to be a huge couple of games for both sides and for the area. Strap yourselves in!
*On a side note, we have several Midlands clubs involved in playoffs outside of the football league, my local side Bromsgrove Sporting take on Sutton Coldfield Town and Stourbridge meet Alvechurch after their recent 3-3 thriller. Most notably, Solihull Moors have a chance of reaching the football league. Despite their links to the Blue side of the city, it would be an incredible achievement for them and be good for the area. If you can get down to any of the games whilst waiting for our own playoff venture, go and support non league football as it’s really pretty good!