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May 6, 2014

Villa in the middle of the title race

Manchester City boss Manuel Pellegrini reacts to Liverpool's stunning result and his side's upcoming matches.

Free of the shackles of a relegation battle, Villa's players now find themselves in the unlikely role of having a major, possibly defining, say in the Premier League title race.

It's no exaggeration to claim that Villa will have tens of thousands of extra supporters on Wednesday night as they travel to Manchester City. After that dramatic collapse against Crystal Palace, Liverpool now need City to slip up somewhere.

Can that be against Villa, in a game that was originally scheduled for February but postponed and rearranged because of City's League Cup final appearance? Is there yet another unlikely result in a season of surprises? A shocking Villa victory at the Etihad would keep Liverpool at the top of the table heading into Sunday's final round of fixtures. Relax, Reds fans. Villa have got this covered...

Now back to the real world. Even the most optimistic of Villa fans will be hoping for a damage-limitation exercise, for recent visits to the Etihad have been nigh on embarrassing: a 5-0 defeat in the league last season, 4-1 the season before and 4-0 the season before that. A 13-1 aggregate loss across the past three league games does not bode well.

- Lambert in dark over future - Jolly: Aguero out against Villa

Neither does the sequence of results look any more favourable for Villa if you expand the number of games. City have won 10 of the last 11 league meetings at home, and making matters worse, the Manchester club has recorded more victories against Villa than any other Premier League rival, with 18 in total. Yep, that's right: this makes Villa City's ideal opponents.

All of which means a Villa win would probably qualify as the mother of all upsets, although a point, which is more realistic, would still please Liverpool and make for a tense finale. Villa manager Paul Lambert has insisted his side are going to Manchester to win, not to make up the numbers, but it's the words of former Manchester United and England defender Gary Neville that are more intriguing.

Neville's belief that Villa "put in some daft performances that surprise you every so often" was a backhanded compliment but an acknowledgement, all the same, that Lambert's team can pull something out of the bag from time to time. The most obvious and relevant example was the reverse fixture earlier this season, when City fell 3-2 at Villa Park after twice leading. Villa never looked like winning that one until the moment Andreas Weimann poked in a late clincher. City were mugged.

It's not the only time Villa have won when least expected -- the 1-0 win over Chelsea, the opening-day 3-1 success at Arsenal. The 2-2 draw against Liverpool at Anfield, when the Villa team looked a world away from the hesitant, inhibited side seen all too often in 2013-14, was another occasion. There were narrow 2-1 defeats at Stamford Bridge and Goodison Park, too. What genuinely should help Villa is that the pressure is now off this team. Having beaten Hull last Saturday, the club is safe, and the players and manager closed out a difficult season on a high note in front of their own supporters. There was a noticeable lift in the mood among the team against the Tigers, with players running off the ball, getting into dangerous areas, enjoying their football for the first time in weeks. Villa's performance may actually be better with nothing to play for than with points at stake.

In terms of team news, Gabby Agbonlahor is a likely absentee after the injury that saw him last 20 minutes against Hull -- after a decent display, his replacement, Jordan Bowery, could be in line for a rare start. Bowery against Vincent Kompany sums up the gap between the two teams nicely -- less a gap, more a yawning chasm, in fact.

But Villa's lineup could be interesting. Lambert may decide it's time to throw caution to the wind and try one or two of the club's young players, just as Ryan Giggs handed debuts to Tom Lawrence and James Wilson against Hull. Lambert might ponder a start for Callum Robinson, and perhaps game time for Janoi Donacien, Jack Grealish -- fresh from helping to keep Notts County in League One -- and Jordan Graham. If he did give a couple of the kids a go, it would be one of the most popular decisions of his Villa managerial career.

So there we have it: Villa are huge underdogs, but is there yet another twist in the title race, or did the last one come in those crazy final 10 minutes at Selhurst Park on Monday?

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