Soccernet Preview: Aston Villa v Wolves
A morale-boosting win over Burnley gave Wolves fans hope that they will have enough in the tank to avoid relegation this term, but there is still a lot of work to do if Mick McCarthy's charges are to get themselves out of trouble. A 2-1 win away at Burnley was only their third on the road, with the previous one coming on December 12, but Villa have only lost twice at home so far - on the first day of the season to Wigan and to Liverpool in their last game of 2009.
Martin O'Neill has brought more stability and depth to the Villa squad this year and, with a number of his players receiving international recognition, his side are being tipped to break into the top four for the first time. Villa boast the best defence around, but Wolves, on the other hand, have the Premier League's worst scoring record - notching up just 23 goals all season - and will do well to stay where they are: fourth from bottom.
Sometimes, however, you can throw the form book out of the window for a Midlands derby. The passion and emotion that can come from such a occasion cannot be understated and Villa would do well to remember that Wolves have already done the double over Spurs this season and, of course, O'Neill's side only managed a 1-1 draw against their local rivals in the first fixture back in October.
Aston Villa player in focus: Stephen Warnock. With Ashley Cole and Wayne Bridge out of action, Warnock has every chance of making England's World Cup squad if he can continue his good form this season. The left back has pace and a good positional sense, but still lacks some of the nous needed to be consistent at this level and was ripped apart by Antonio Valencia in the Carling Cup final. He won't be tested that much by the Premier League's worst attack, but Fabio Capello may well be watching closely.
Wolves player in focus: Kevin Doyle. Wolves' top scorer this season, Doyle has six goals, but hasn't impressed as he has formed part of the league's worst strikeforce. The fact that defender Jody Craddock is next on the list with four speaks volumes about the deficiencies up front for McCarthy's men. However, Doyle has shown he can do it with Reading, boasts power, pace and a good eye for goal if his confidence is up and will lead the line to form the biggest threat to the Villa backline.
Key Battle: Stewart Downing vs. Stephen Ward. Capello may choose to watch this game for another reason, and that is to watch Downing performing on the right of midfield. With the right-footed Ashley Young employed on the left, Downing unusually finds himself on the other flank despite the fact that he boasts a fine left peg. His form since returning from injury has already got him England recognition but, with David Beckham ruled out of the World Cup, there will be an extra seat on the plane that Downing will have his eye on. Certainly Ward will have to be at his best to repel the threat for Wolves, while the versatile Irishman will be forced to curb his attacking instincts in the hope of keeping Downing quiet.
Tactics: Villa's game revolves around their pacy wing play and sharp counter attacks. With either Emile Heskey or John Carew providing physical power alongside the runs of Gabriel Agbonlahor up front, Downing and Ashley Young provide the firepower and Stiliyan Petrov is charged with breaking up attacks in the middle. Wolves have curbed their attacking efforts of late to play a conservative five-man midfield with two wide-men. With Doyle playing up front on his own and plenty of endeavour from the likes of Karl Henry and David Jones in the centre, McCarthy will be pushing his players to close down Villa hard when they have the ball.
Quotes: Martin O'Neill on his side's challenge for the top four: "We have kept this going for a long, long time throughout the season. It's been tough on the team, really tough. We've got a very hectic period coming up and we will need every able-bodied man available."
Wolves striker Chris Iwelumo on his side's hopes of survival: "It might even be the lowest points total to stay up which might work in our favour. Maybe another three wins will do it and it's still in our hands - we've got to scrap for every point to stay in the league. It was a massive result at Burnley, a 12-pointer I reckon!''
In the news: Following the news that David Beckham would be ruled out of the World Cup through injury, Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill claimed this week three of his players - James Milner, Ashley Young and Stewart Downing - are all capable of stepping into England's World Cup squad in Beckham's place.
Meanwhile, giant Wolves striker Stefan Maierhofer has launched a stinging attack on Mick McCarthy over a lack of chances. "I don't have a clue why I've not been in the team. I work hard in training, yet others get to play," Maierhofer said. "Why have Wolves signed me only to not use me? Kevin Doyle cost £6.5 million, so he has to play. Yet he has just got six goals in 25 games, which is not a great deal. Then Andy Keogh came back from a three-month lay-off, trained for two days and played against Bolton and Manchester United. I feel like they are taking the p*** out of me."
Aston Villa team news: Agbonlahor was forced off against Wigan with a groin injury, but will face a late test to see if he is fit. Nigel Reo-Coker is still out with a foot problem, but has returned to light training.
Wolves team news: Iwelumo is back from loan having scored twice in seven games at Bristol City, but may only make the bench. Michael Kightly and David Edwards are both recovering from ankle injuries, but Edwards returned to action in the reserves so may be back in contention sooner than his team-mate.
Probable Aston Villa team (4-4-2): Friedel, Warnock, Collins, Dunne, Cuellar, Petrov, Milner, Downing, Young, Heskey, Carew.
Probable Wolves team (4-5-1): Hahnemann, Ward, Berra, Craddock, Zubar, Jones, Henry, Milijas, Jarvis, Foley, Doyle.
Soccernet prediction: Derby games can throw up surprises, but when the league's best defence comes up against the worst attack, there can be only one winner.