The unwanted cup final
Cup finals don't come along every often these days for Villa. The last one was four years ago, when Martin O'Neill's team were pipped by Manchester United in the League Cup. Before that, the year 2000 and a 1-0 defeat to Chelsea in the FA Cup Final.
- Hughes: Do Villa deserve to go down?
Villa have an unofficial cup final against Hull on Saturday, according to Paul Lambert. The manager's description of the game as such -- for it was he who labelled it a "cup final" -- was well intended, as a public acknowledgement of the importance of the match, a tightening of player focus. But it was unfortunate, too. For one, it's a hurtful reminder of the occasions that are currently well out of Villa's reach, and for two, that this game has taken on such relevance is only as a result of the team's terrible slump in form. Cup final? Maybe, but what about the series of semi-finals, in which Villa have failed to perform leading up this?
Saturday's opponents have an actual cup final to prepare for, of course. Whether the looming FA Cup meeting against Arsenal will have any bearing on Hull's performance remains to be seen, though it's undoubtedly something many beleaguered Villa fans are hoping for. Half a dozen Hull players each taking their foot off the gas, concentrating on staying fit for Wembley, would be just the job. Judging by the Tigers' comeback from 2-0 down to draw 2-2 at Fulham last Saturday, however, Hull are in no mood to roll over for anyone.
There are also three members of the Hull contingent who may have a little extra motivation, too. Tigers' manager Steve Bruce enjoyed a successful spell in charge of city rivals Birmingham City, during which the Blues had a pretty good record against Villa. Another former Blue is Hull captain Curtis Davies; the centre-back was at Villa before moving to St Andrews and had a mixed time of it in claret and blue, suffering with serious Achilles and shoulder injuries before losing his place and the faith of O'Neill, his coach at the time. He's since matured nicely into an accomplished Premier League defender.
And then there is Shane Long, who gave the Villa defence a torrid time earlier in the season, scoring two early goals in the first Midlands derby of the season. Villa simply couldn't cope with his movement that night at the Hawthorns. The Irishman has been a great signing for Hull since his January transfer from West Brom, forming a solid understanding with strike partner Nikica Jelavic.
The pair didn't come cheap, at a combined 14 million pounds, but Hull's investment was based on financial logic: both have added class and a cutting edge in the forward areas, and the Tigers have never been anywhere near the relegation battle in the second half of the campaign. Oh, had the Villa board had the insight to strengthen to the same extent four months ago.
But they did not; the squad have not been particularly fortunate with injuries, and here Villa are. This game could realistically be the team's last chance for points, for it's difficult to imagine, given Villa's terrible form, that anything can be taken from visits to Manchester City and Spurs.
Lambert has admitted it, and one or two of Villa's senior players have said as much, too. Grant Holt, brought in by Lambert on loan, has insisted that the current predicament is the fault of the players, not the manager, while Gabby Agbonlahor said this week that the Hull match could be "the biggest game of all our careers."
The importance of the game cannot be overlooked. Lose it, and Villa can still stay up, for the teams below them, especially the bottom three, have a lot to do. Win it, and the worrying is over. With the stakes so high, and the tension at Villa Park guaranteed to reach white-hot levels, it may be a wise decision to start with Holt, a confident, experienced character. He won't baulk at the pressure and besides, Andreas Weimann has done little to warrant a start. Agbonlahor, on the other hand, has delivered on many occasions when Villa have really needed it.
Lambert's other decisions will be at right-back and centre-back. Leandro Bacuna was substituted at Swansea due to illness, so providing the Dutchman is fit, the Villa manager must elect to start again with him, or go with Matt Lowton. He might be tempted to use Lowton and push Bacuna into midfield, to create more attacking zest in that area. Lambert is a big admirer of Karim El Ahmadi, though, so that seems unlikely.
At centre-back, the expectation must be that Nathan Baker gives way for Ciaran Clark. Baker had an awful time at Swansea, lucky to stay on the field, and Long, in particular, is too clever a striker for him. Clark hasn't had a great season himself, but he's a better footballer and more disciplined than his colleague. A recall wouldn't be a surprise.
It will be emotional at Villa Park on Saturday. It's the final home game of a troubled season, but more than that, this fixture marks 20 years since the famous old Holte End was knocked down before being redeveloped. Villa's last game in front of the Holte was on May 7, 1994 -- the team were in relegation trouble then, too, but Dwight Yorke scored twice in a 2-1 victory over Liverpool to clinch safety.
That match marked the end of an era for Villa. Let us hope the club's next one does not mark the beginning of the end of another.