Aston Villa kick off another playoff campaign this Saturday lunchtime against near-neighbours West Bromwich Albion and there are plenty of reasons to feel optimistic heading into this season’s final few fixtures.
Personally, I think the two games against Albion are the most dangerous of all the teams we could’ve faced. Coming up against local rivals in this sort of fixture is not ideal. I’m not particularly happy at having to go to the Hawthorns for the second leg. That home advantage, when teams know exactly what needs to be done, could ultimately prove to be telling. The other semi-final from last season is a great case in point; Fulham lost their first leg 1-0 away at Derby but overturned the deficit in front of their own fans back at Craven Cottage. And as we know, the rest is history.
However, I think that there are plenty more positives than negatives facing us and we’re in a good position to go one better this year.
For starters, the recent run of form, which included the historic ten wins on the bounce, has confidence at an all-time high. The final day defeat at home to Norwich is a blip and one which probably won’t have any lasting effects. The team selection, whilst not weak, certainly wasn’t full strength. Standout performers Tyrone Mings, John McGinn, Jack Grealish and Tammy Abraham were all either rested or injured. Despite that, Villa created by far the best chances in the game and could easily have won, or at least drawn the match. In the circumstances, losing to a team that ultimately finished the league as Champions, and who still needed to make sure of the points on the day to ensure that was the case, is nothing to panic over and shouldn’t dent any belief.
As well as confidence though, the camaraderie amongst the squad at the moment seems to be incredible. We know McGinn and Grealish are good mates off the field and that is paying dividends on the pitch also in the way they link up and compliment each other’s game. Mings has perhaps become the most prominent figure of all, celebrating victories like he’s been a Villa fan all his life and seems to be a really good lad in general. His enthusiasm certainly has had a galvanising effect and seems to have really helped bring the squad together even more tightly. A good sign is always when the players interact with the fans on social media. Mings has certainly been at the forefront of that lately also. There is no doubt that it’s a buoyant camp right now with the players loving life and working hard for each other all over the pitch.
For what it’s worth, I think Dean Smith got the squad selection against Norwich completely spot on, and also in the matches leading up to it. There was no panic about McGinn’s potential suspension and he was correctly played up until he was just one booking away. Many people were shocked at the full strength team that Smith put out against Leeds, as our playoff spot had been confirmed at that point. Whilst Grealish, in particular, came in for rough treatment (surprise, surprise), I think it was right to try and lay down a marker against a potential playoff opponent.
Similarly, taking the opportunity to rest the spine of the team against Norwich was the right thing to do so also. The timing was right, and it was done without completely surrendering the fixture. It’s been a relentless schedule since the beginning of March. With a couple of huge matches coming up just a few days apart from each other, freshening up the team ensure that those players come back into things fully rested, and hopefully with no niggles or knocks.
As for the playoffs themselves, Villa have every right to feel confident of securing promotion. Interestingly, I think that Leeds who finished in third place, are perhaps the most vulnerable of any of the teams involved.
Much has been made of the theory that Marcelo Bielsa’s teams often run out of steam towards the end of the season. That has certainly come to fruition this time around. The last thing Leeds need is another couple of tough games right now. Noticeable recent losses to Wigan and more shockingly, an absolutely awful Ipswich side on the final day of the season do not bode well. Especially in facing Derby team absolutely bouncing after good solid wins against Bristol City and Albion.
The return of Mason Mount from injury came just at the right time for the Rams to push into 6th place. There is no doubt they are a much better team when he’s available. With all the hype surrounding a rematch with Leeds, for my money, it’s much more likely we’ll be facing Derby if we make it through to the final. Whilst we have beaten them convincingly twice this season (3-0 at Pride Park and 4-0 at Villa Park), it’s worth remembering that Mount didn’t feature in either of those games. Psychologically though, we certainly have the upper hand after such big wins; we know we can beat them.
As for Albion, as I say I think they are the most dangerous team we could face. The 2-2 draw back in December was a real turning point for us. Grealish picked up that shin injury and being robbed by Jay Rodriguez scooping the ball into the net with his hand in the very last minute of the game. The reverse fixture saw Villa in abysmal form and slumped to a 2-0 loss. Despite his handball, Rodriguez and his strike partner Dwight Gayle have been in great form all season with 22 and 23 goals respectively. But they have laboured slightly also lately, struggling to overcome Rotherham at home and failing to beat Reading. Although Derby had much more to fight for on the final day of the season, it was a near full strength Baggies side that succumbed in that 3-1 defeat. Nevertheless, they are a real threat and it’s going to be tough to shut them out.
The team no one wants to face
Without wanting to sound too blinkered, Villa are the team that no one will want to face. Unlike last season where the modus operandi was to shut up shop and grab a 1-0 win, we know that Dean Smith will utilise the firepower at his disposal and look to score goals. For me, that is probably what swings this in our favour. Being overly cautious would be the worst thing we could do. And whilst we shouldn’t be overly gung-ho, I expect us to take control of the game at Villa Park and we will definitely create chances.
Abraham may need a bit of sharpness after injury but will be fit to start. Having Mings, McGinn and Grealish coming in fresh, fit and rested will be massive for us. A packed out Villa Park will create an intense atmosphere for the players to thrive off and I fancy us to be in a good position for the second leg.
It’ll be tough to get to Wembley again though. Certainly being a couple of goals up for the return match wouldn’t go amiss at all because I do think the visit to the Hawthorns could go either way. This is a fearless Villa team full of belief, and we know we can go anywhere and get results. I’m quietly optimistic that we have enough positives to walk out underneath the Wembley arch again. And if we do, you can bet that we’ll have a proper go at winning the game this time around.