Seven points adrift and without a win in ten Premier League games, confidence was on the floor and preparations for a swift return to the Championship were underway, but through the midst of Villa’s crisis, Dean Smith has remained the eternal optimist.
Crucial wins over Crystal Palace and then Arsenal were a must after Villa blew an important lead at Goodison Park in between league wins seven and eight of the season. Seven points from the three penultimate ties for Smith was the target, and coupled with matters elsewhere at Watford and Bournemouth, Villa have made up the ground from where they were being swallowed whole only two weeks ago.
A lot can change very quickly in football, and Aston Villa should need no reminding that any slip up on Sunday can go punished, because this football club knows more than most, what can go wrong, will go wrong.
It’s testament to Smith’s tactical flexibility and understanding that the majority of Villa’s goals since the Premier League’s restart have come from set-piece situations whilst goals conceded has also been reduced barring a no-show against Manchester United.
Dropping seven points below the dreaded dotted line after that defeat was a wake up call for the Villa players who despite shoring up and looking more resolute, were coasting in games and settling for draws against beatable opponents like Sheffield United and Newcastle. Smith sets up to give Villa the best chance to win every Premier League game but he simply wasn’t in control of the motivations and lack of intensity levels that players on the pitch were showing.
Sunday’s opponents, West Ham are officially safe after taking a win against a top six side and also getting the job done against teams in and around the relegation picture, and whilst Villa have left it late, they could emulate David Moyes’ escape act at the London Stadium.
Both coaches have managed to get the best out of their sides that up until lockdown looked doomed with out of form players and goal shortages a major part in their respective downfalls. West Ham’s Michail Antonio has found the best goalscoring form in the league in the past eight games, scoring eight goals in six games and whilst Villa haven’t seen any goals from Mbwana Samatta and Keinan Davis, Smith has found other ways to win games.
Seven points out of nine
Having conceded only once in the past three games, in which Villa find themselves unbeaten, Smith has managed to blend defensive security with an attacking intent in recent weeks and more importantly Villa have taken results to reward performances.
Post lockdown, Douglas Luiz, Ezri Konsa and Trezeguet have all come out of their shells to offer their best performances in Villa shirts since all three signed for the club last year. Perhaps the lack of fans has helped improve communication on the pitch and relieved the pressures of a baying Villa Park crowd demanding improvements on the pitch.
Villa have this season kept more home clean sheets at Villa Park than in all but two of their Premier League seasons since 2000, and Konsa and Luiz have played a massive part in Villa’s recent revival. Pepe Reina’s reinstalment in the starting 11 has also calmed a few nerves.
It’s taken Smith almost 34 games to realise his best 11 but if Villa manage to survive, by hook or by crook, goals scored or outright points, Villa’s players and management staff will be better off next season having acclimatised to a tough league that they’ll hope to remain in come next week.
Through the season, despite bad loses to Bournemouth, Watford and Southampton of which questioned Smith’s place at the club, his positivity approaching the final turn of the Premier League season has rubbed off on a group of players who were in desperate need of a confidence going into the most important games in the club’s recent history following last year’s play-off success.
Villa are now in the unexpected position of being favourites to beat the drop that for so long had been over-shadowing a season that apart from a Carabao Cup final appearance has failed to lift off – but in typical Villa fashion, the drama of a last day survival shoot-out is looming.
West Ham will be no pushover
There’s as many relegation permutations as Villa have points, but only one result will do – a win.
To set the scene, Bournemouth must win and hope both Villa and Watford lose whilst Villa simply need to match Watford’s result without conceding too many goals if they leave the London Stadium having lost the match.
Tyrone Mings spoke to VillaTV about remaining concentrated ahead of the final day.
“We knew what was required and we know that we’re at the stage of the season where only a win will do,” said Mings.
“We are nowhere near out of the woods yet, but we have given ourselves a good chance.
“We have to go and replicate this at the weekend, because complacency can be a killer, and we still have a huge task.
“Tuesday night means nothing if we don’t finish the job at the weekend.”
West Ham have only lost once in their last six having taken crucial wins over Chelsea, Norwich and Watford to secure their top-flight status. Having felt the pressure of a demanding West Ham crowd for most of the season before scrapping for survival in the past weeks, Moyes’ players can finally play with freedom and expression.
That can work both ways. West Ham could either step aside and let Villa get on with their business or will Moyes’ side – who were last time out unlucky to only draw at Old Trafford – try to end the season in style.
Declan Rice, Tomáš Souček and Antonio have all played at the top of their games in the past month and realised their best form of their careers during that time. It’s a scary prospect for Villa who aren’t playing the West Ham side who struggled for goals and confidence since the turn of the year.
On paper, Watford’s visit to the Emirates will be the trickiest fixture to navigate compared to Bournemouth’s visit to Goodison and Villa’s game at West Ham, but things are rarely straightforward on the final day, especially when relegation is at stake.
The only advantage Villa holds going into the last day is that they know a win will be enough to secure Premier League football next year, not the quality of the opponent or what the opposition has to play for.
It’ll be Villa’s first visit to the London Stadium since the Hammers moved into their new stadium in 2016 and it’s a shame the thousands of Villans that would’ve taken over Stratford won’t be able to back their side ahead of what will be a huge outing in the capital. If survival is achieved, the London Stadium will always be remembered among Villa fans for a vitsl final day triumph.