And so it comes down to this. Ten matches to break the top four and secure a berth in the Champions’ League. No, it didn’t go exactly as planned. No, the squad was not supposed to tire as it has; and no, Martin Laursen should not have suffered an injury at the most crucial stretch of the schedule.
But Aston Villa are there—nursing a three-point lead over Arsenal for fourth spot in the Premier League. It hasn’t been pretty. Their elimination from the UEFA Cup was pitiful and their recent form has been disappointing. Nevertheless, they remain in control of their destiny. And beginning Sunday against Tottenham Hotspur, they will embark on a three-match series that will define their season, one way or another.
After completing a furious fixture list of six matches in 18 days and traveling a total of 3,490 miles, manager Martin O’Neill’s beleaguered squad sunned themselves in Dubai for a week before returning to the English winter. If they were exhausted before, they can no longer use that as an excuse.
Here’s hoping they won’t have to. When Villa were fresh and just out of the gate, they devoured their opponents’ mistakes like a hungry dog, using pace and width to great effect on the counter-attack. Then they ran out of gas. And as we all saw, a team that relies on speed and quick reactions to be effective is utterly useless when it tires.
Dubai will have fixed that problem. And Tottenham, who played to a 1-1 draw with Sunderland in the meantime, might just be the first casualty of Villa’s recharged batteries.
With Liverpool and Manchester United on the horizon, this weekend’s date with Spurs will be the best opportunity Villa will have to take maximum points from a match until West Ham come calling in late April. But if they don’t take six of the possible nine points, it might be the end of their Champions’ League aspirations.
Thankfully, Villa will be playing Liverpool at Anfield. With just four losses in 14 games away from home, Villa’s road record is about as impressive as Liverpool’s home record is mediocre. The Reds have been a disaster at their own ground this season. That they’ll fail to win on April 14 is hardly out of the question. That leaves United, and you might as well give them the points already.
All that said, Arsenal’s bid to overhaul Villa shouldn’t be judged until May 16, at which time they will have played at home against Chelsea and away to both Liverpool and Manchester United in less than a month. So while the next three weeks will be a good barometer of Aston Villa’s abilities, Arsenal won’t be given a similar measurement until May.
Unfortunately, the fight for fourth has become less a battle and more a contest to see who can take the least damaging tumble down the stretch. Frankly, if Villa can’t compete against Spurs, Liverpool and United, they don’t deserve to be in the Champions’ League anyway. We’ll soon find out if they can.