Ahead of the game against Reading, there sits an air of gloom over B6. After the delirious high of comfortably seeing off champions-elect Wolves three weeks ago, Villa have turned in some pretty ordinary performances in the subsequent three matches, mustering a meagre return of one point against sides which have spent most of the season kicking around in the very lowest reaches of the Championship.
QPR, Bolton and Hull have, to the delight of Wolves, Cardiff and Fulham fans everywhere, taken the wind right out of claret and blue sails, as Villa’s automatic promotion hopes foundered in a sea of scared, nervy and downright insipid football. Meanwhile, Fulham and Cardiff have made hay and put clear daylight between ourselves and them. Cardiff continue to confound expectation and just keep on finding ways to win, while Fulham have also kept their momentum going when it matters most.
Villa, on the other hand, have found themselves pegged back by muddled team selection, nervy, uncertain performances and a sense of stage fright. Having won seven in a row through January and February, March has again proved our Achilles heel (remember how we folded every season in March under Martin O’Neill?) and we are in serious jeopardy of missing out on even a play-off berth. Fortunately, Derby and Bristol City are proving as unreliable as ourselves, and we find ourselves with an eight-point cushion over the 5th placed side going into this week’s action, as well as a healthy goal difference compared with our immediate rivals.
Our old friend Tony Pulis has manoeuvred Middlesbrough into contention, while Millwall are building up a head of steam just below the play-off places, coming up hard on the rails. A last-day visit to The New Den, for what should have been a promotion party, may now take on a winner-takes-all flavour if results go against us in the intervening few matches. Who, in all honesty, would fancy going down there needing a win to guarantee some post-season action?
Have we peaked too early? Did our winning run after Christmas come too soon to sustain into April and May? Our form over 30-odd games (prior to the last three) was the equal of Wolves. Our poor start is what has hampered us, leaving us with much to do as we enter the home straight. And it looks a bridge too far. Although we still have 21 points available, it looks increasingly as though that wouldn’t be enough to overhaul Cardiff or Wolves, so the smart money must surely be on us ensuring our play-off spot – and as quickly as possible.
The problem we have at the moment, unless we can change direction in the next couple of weeks, is that the momentum is not with us. As it stands, Fulham are on a roll and so are Millwall – they top the form table over the past 5 games – and Boro are not far behind. As I mentioned, Derby are performing their annual end-of-season meltdown, so the game at B6 at the end of April might have less riding on it than originally thought.
A few comments on the forums have suggested that the remaining games might no longer be considered ‘must win’, but I beg to differ. We simply MUST get back into the winning habit if we want to taste play-off success. Grinding out draws is not enough. This approach might see us over the line and into the top 6, but it won’t help us when we get there. Villa don’t strike me as a team of battlers, not in the way Boro or Millwall do. And with Fulham arguably the best team in terms of pure football in the division, I really wouldn’t fancy us come through to Wembley and beyond.
Tuesday night, against a Reading side buoyed by a new manager and a victory at the weekend, will go a long way to showing us what we might expect for the rest of the season. Win, and we’ll likely have one foot in the play-offs. A draw would not be the end of the world but would shake further an already fragile confidence among the team AND the fans. But defeat would put Derby, Bristol City, Middlesbrough, Sheffield United and Millwall on high alert that the mighty Aston Villa are wobbling, and, with apologies to the great Sir Ron Saunders, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a bad idea to bet against us.