Have Villa got a Brucie Bonus?
After our improbable run of seven wins on the bounce, we`ve been brought right back down to earth in the past couple of matches. A rather fortuitous home draw against hard-to-beat Preston on Tuesday came after defeat at Fulham and suddenly, we find ourselves four points behind a Cardiff side which refuse to go away. With Derby and Bristol City stumbling, Sheffield United flickering back to life and Fulham building up a head of steam, bums are squeaking all over the place.
But let`s take stock for a moment. There are still 13 games to go, and nothing is decided in February. Apart from the League Cup, which doesn`t concern us, and hasn`t for some years now. Yeah, thanks Phil Dowd, you (that`s enough – VV lawyers). I digress.
There are still 39 points to play for. Although Cardiff have stolen a march on us in the past couple of weeks, but before the season is done, they have to play Bristol City, Derby, Sheffield United and Wolves, not to mention having to visit Villa Park.
Meanwhile, Fulham have still to face Wolves, Derby, Sheffield United and Preston – in their next four matches! It`s a similar story for Derby. Wolves probably have the easiest run-in of the top seven or eight teams, but they blew a two-goal lead on Wednesday against Norwich, so anything could still happen. In truth, there are no easy matches left as things tighten up and the £100m (minimum) prize of a Premier League place gets ever closer.
History would suggest Villa need, as a minimum, another 30 points from the remaining games to secure a top two finish – in other words, we need to win ten of our remaining 13 games. A very tall order, particularly because, even during our recent seven game winning streak, we have rarely been convincing. In truth, we haven`t dominated very often all season.
Injuries have been most unkind to us, but many feel our squad is large enough, and more than good enough, to withstand the rigours of a 46-game season at this level. Personally, I dispute that point of view. Losing Jack Grealish and Albert Adomah in the last two games has laid bare the fragility of our set up and Steve Bruce has (rightly, in my view) been criticised for lacklustre, conservative team selection, as well as persisting with under-performing players in the shape of Josh Onomah and Conor Hourihane.
If our squad is so deep and talented, how did we start against Preston – at home – with a centre-half at right-back, a right-back at left-back, a centre-midfielder wide left and only one striker? Asking for a friend.
Considering our remaining fixtures, failure to make the play-offs in inconceivable. But we want more than that. It`s a lottery for which we really don`t want to buy a ticket. Our record against our fellow contenders is patchy – we haven`t done the double over any of our immediate rivals this season – so a two-legged play-off, followed by a one-off, winner-takes-all ‘cup final` is really not the route we want to be looking at if we can help it.
To be fair to Steve Bruce, he is no stranger to the play-offs, and has form in terms of negotiating the lottery of the sudden-death format. Of course, no team is immune from an injury crisis, but it`s hard to imagine that Villa wouldn`t have a near full-strength squad available by the end of the season.
Crash hats and plenty of clean underwear will be needed between now and 6th May. Or 26th May, if we fail to make the top two automatic places. Steve Bruce knows what it takes to get promoted from the Championship, unlike Gary Rowett, Lee Johnson, Slavisa Jokanovic and Chris Wilder. Or Nuno Espirito Santo, for that matter. Will it make a difference? We`re just going to have to wait and see.