Pride and precious points at stake as Aston Villa meet rival West Brom
The season feels as if it is speeding up, and Villa are running out of games and time.
Saturday's match against West Brom is the last Premier League fixture of January, swiftly followed by the closure of the winter transfer window. Villa are still bottom of the league and, at the time of writing, there have been no incoming transfer deals. What happens on and off the field in the next three or four weeks will decide the club's fortunes come May.
For Villa's players and manager, Remi Garde, the pressure must be intense. Every match from here on in is a must-win, every dropped point a crushing blow. A derby against West Brom is probably not the fixture of choice for Garde, but on the other hand it's an opportunity to secure a victory which could provide a huge boost to confidence.
THE BEST OF ESPN FC
- Bell: Liverpool fans make themselves heard
- Cox: Leicester improving | Why Poch should stay
- Okwonga: Man United's market | City's title hopes
- Laurens: PSG's pre-UCL issues | Hertha's curse
- Highlights (U.S. only): Stuttgart 1-3 BVB
- FC TV: Champions League W2W4 | LVG wrong
- News | Transfer | Toe Poke | Fantasy | FC TV | Podcast | MLS
Who could forget the dramatic 2-1 victory over them last March -- secured by Christian Benteke's injury-time penalty -- which breathed new life into a flagging Villa side and proved to be the catalyst for an escape from relegation? The situation this time around is more severe, but nevertheless another three points and Villa supporters may start to believe in a miracle.
It's a cliche to say that derby games are closely fought affairs, but this fixture definitely is. When Villa and West Brom have faced each other in the Premier League, the margin of victory for either side has never been more than a single goal. The clubs have played 19 times in this division; Villa have won seven of those encounters, West Brom four with eight draws, but every one of these matches has been competitive. Expect the same on Saturday.
Expect a low-scoring match, too. Apart from the 4-3 thriller at Villa Park in January 2014, this fixture has never yielded many goals; common score lines have been 1-0, 1-1, 2-1. If the Hawthorns rains goals it would be a surprise. The two clubs are among the three lowest scoring clubs in the league. Villa are the worst off with 18 in 22 games, while Albion are only slightly better with 22; Swansea have 20.
Earlier this season, when Villa were just beginning to show signs of serious weakness under Tim Sherwood and the manager seemed powerless to affect a positive change, West Brom won 1-0 thanks to a first-half strike from Saido Berahino, enjoying a rare league start. From that point on, Villa's form completely bottomed out and the recovery has been slow. Though not yet complete, there are signs of gradual improvement.
Garde has managed to get something of a reaction from his struggling squad. Villa are unbeaten in four games. While two of those have been against a League Two club it's still a level of consistency and a welcome change to the weekly beatings experienced with Sherwood in charge.
Tuesday's FA Cup replay win over Wycombe was useful for the Villa manager. Result aside -- a 2-0 win which was far from easy and secured with two late goals -- Garde's resolve over his first choice lineup will have been strengthened after watching a handful of fringe players fail to impress. Several of his regulars were rested but few of the replacements did much to justify breaking into Saturday's team.
The Frenchman was disappointed by the performance of Jack Grealish, but the young midfielder wasn't alone. Brad Guzan looked nervous in goal, while Scott Sinclair played reasonably well without doing enough to properly convince. Carlos Sanchez was substituted at half-time.
Instead, Garde is likely to completely change his back five against West Brom, with Mark Bunn, Leandro Bacuna, Jores Okore, Joleon Lescott and Aly Cissokho all returning.
The only really difficult decision Garde faces is whether Micah Richards should start after missing the two recent league games against Crystal Palace and Leicester. Okore and Lescott have definitely earned the right to continue as the centre-back pairing but Richards at right-back is a possibility -- which means the Villa manager must either push Bacuna into midfield at the expense of Jordan Veretout, or drop the versatile Dutchman to the bench.
Otherwise, the team more or less picks itself as Garde has learned to trust a core group of players who, while limited in many ways, at least don't fold over at the first hint of a setback. These are the players who are best equipped to give Villa a fighting chance over the coming weeks, and a fighting chance of winning at the Hawthorns, too.
Kevin Hughes covered Premier League football at Match magazine and was later deputy editor of Sport. You can follow him on Twitter @KevHughesie.