Here we are again, three games between another season in the Championship or a return to the big stage. In our way? West Bromwich Albion rather than Middlesbrough, and then either Leeds or Derby. On paper, the semifinal seems a bit tougher than facing Boro last year. Either match-up in the final would be…interesting.
As far as West Brom go, well, no love lost and not much to be said. Villa were robbed of a victory in the teams’ first meeting, and lost the game and Grealish in the second. But with the unbeaten run now consigned to history, I think Villa are in about as reasonable a spot as they could hope for. You might think there’s a bit of a disadvantage to have the first leg at Villa Park, but that could also play into Villa’s hands as it’s a chance to gain control.
The idea is for Villa to notch a nice win at home. While season-long defensive stats are relatively meaningless for Villa given the personnel changes, the fact is that since January we’ve gotten harder to beat. If Villa can carry a cushion to The Hawthorns, it might be tough for the Baggies to make up enough ground.
And even if Villa don’t carry a two- or three-goal advantage into the second meeting, they’ll know the Baggies’ win was a close-fought affair and Villa could’ve been out of sight in the draw. In short, if Villa want it enough and go play like they do, I’d not bet against them.
When it comes to the streak, confidence and the team’s psychology, I think the way it all came to an end was sort of ideal. The controversial draw with Leeds turned out to be a bit of a moral victory without Villa giving too much away. Dean Smith saw how Leeds would approach Villa, and had a chance to see whether Villa could largely bypass midfield and get at Leeds quickly. He could approach a potential final completely differently now that he knows the Whites will probably man-mark Jack again. Or go at it the same way and expect better results. And then the controversy surrounding Leeds’ goal gives Villa a chip to carry and a score to settle, while Leeds are no doubt feeling a bit shamed.
Losing to Norwich, Villa got the whole unbeaten business off their backs without giving up much in the way of confidence. We played a full-strength Canaries side without Abraham, Grealish, McGinn and Mings, and pretty much gave as good as we got. More important than the rests and the effort, Smith had a week of the players’ full attention as they were all reminded that nothing is a given.
If we end up getting past the Baggies and face Derby, it’ll be a side we’ve twice beaten handily. That might sound good, and it could well be, but beating the same team three times can be a big ask. Then again, a 7-0 aggregate over two matches…well, I’ll probably be rooting for the Rams along with Villa.
So, I like the overall situation. Doesn’t mean it will turn out well, but a timely loss can be a good thing, and I think in Villa’s case it’ll refocus everyone, remind them that they’re good, but need to give everything. WBA won’t make that feeling hard to maintain.
Anyway, we’ll soon see. The atmosphere should be electric, and I think there’s very much an air of unfinished business in the squad. They know the agony of coming so close, and are now a fitter, more dynamic side who know they can score in bunches. Villa come in the form side, but I think it’s Albion who might be feeling a bit more pressure.
Games don’t get much bigger than these, and this mini season will be the opportunity at redemption everyone at the club has been wanting. With Grealish and McGinn in excellent form, and a bigger, tougher, and faster defense, I think the players will be feeling good. I think Smith will have them prepared and can keep their heads on straight. I don’t think they’re taking anything for granted.
It’s all to play for, and Villa are as lethal a side as any of the four. A win today, and I think we’ll be hard to stop. And if the players want it bad enough, they’ll get it.
So come on you Villa boys. It’s time to fight tooth and nail, take your chances, and just play up to your potential. Simples.
Over to you.