I don't have anything witty to say about this picture. I just think that Sunderland's Asamoah Gyan and Jordan Henderson look adorable. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
Fun fact: the match that directly preceded the previous Sunderland fixture was Villa's unlikely and confidence inspiring 0-0 draw with Chelsea. It could easily be argued that Aston Villa's slide towards the bottom began with their 1-0 loss at the Stadium of light On day where Villa were largely the better side Richard Dunne's league-record eighth own goal gave Sunderland three points and Villa would not see another league win for nearly two months. A lot has changed since then and very little of it has been good. As it stands Villa sit in 17th, just a point above West Ham, Wigan and the relegation zone. The Chelsea game was fantastic and encouraging but at some point Villa are going to have to start winning games.And while it's tempting to see Sunderland sitting in 6th position and calculate that a draw would be an acceptable result, there aren't really all that many teams below Villa in the table right now and some of the teams Villa need to beat in order to salvage respectability are going to be better than they are.
And Sunderland are certainly a better team than Villa, at least at the moment. Steve Bruce's club don't play the most exciting style in the world but the results this season have largely shown their gameplan to be effective. In many ways Villa and Sunderland are ships passing in the night; Sunderland's steady improvement in recent years looks to be coming into full swing as the club makes a serious push for Europe and sit just six point back of the top four while Villa sit terrifyingly close to the edge. The ebb and flow of teams in the Premier League is only really interesting when your team is the one doing the flowing; for those that ebb it alternates between terrifying and depressing.
Sunderland have gotten to where they are by playing very good defense, possessing just enough explosiveness in the attack and consistently turning losses into draws. Sunderland have drawn nine times this season in fact, and while Villa's draws were generally the result of dropping points from winning positions the Black Cats have managed to pick up points from losing positions and that can add up, as we should all be well aware by now. Sunderland aren't in the class of the teams directly above them in the table, but they are a solid, smart and opportunistic team and often that (and a certain measure of good fortune) is what separates teams with similar levels of talent. It would be difficult to convince me that Sunderland have better players than Villa, but they are without question better than Villa.
The good news is that those parts of the equation that aren't related to talent are often fleeting and simply a matter of confidence, familiarity and other largely intangible factors. We caught a glimpse of much of that in the Chelsea match. On three separate occasions I was absolutely positive that Villa were set to fall apart as we've seen so many times this season, and yet they didn't. They fought back and grabbed the unlikeliest of points. They played the entire second half with their backs to the wall and when the pressure finally broke them down they came back firing. That's the sort of attitude that was missing against Newcastle, Tottenham and Manchester City. But if Villa can put together the same type of performance that they did against Chelsea, they're going to win far more games than they lose or draw going down the stretch and thoughts of relegation will seem silly once we reach the end.
It's got to start here. Sunderland are good, yes. But they're certainly beatable and they're likely to be playing a conservative style on the road. Villa's supporters are likely to have been energized by the result at Stamford Bridge and the complaints about Gerard Houllier have been silent since the final whistle blew on Sunday. Villa do have some injuries to deal with as Gabriel Agbonlahor is questionable after re-tweaking his groin against Chelsea (though the most recent reports seem to downplay the concerns.) Otherwise we're likely to see the same side we did against Chelsea, largely veteran led but with youth and athleticism to be brought in late. I think that's a good decision, despite my belief in playing the youngsters. It's crucial that Villa get a few positive results under their belt and put themselves at a more comfortable distance from the bottom three and by the end of the debacle against Manchester City many of the kids appeared to be utterly defeated; now that the veterans have returned and the squad is largely healthy it might be best to began working them back into the rotation slowly.
Sunderland have far more serious fitness concerns at the moment Lee Cattermole, Frazier Campbell and Michael Turner all out, Mohamed Elmohamady and Danny Welbeck doubtful and Asamoah Gyan questionable. Gyan's sore hamstring is perhaps most important as even if he does play the potential to be less explosive and more tentative are certainly there. While I'm not one to celebrate the injury of any player and would hate to call this news 'good' for that reason it's impossible to argue that it doesn't improve Villa's outlook in this match and they all count as our first-half record illustrates quite ably.
Villa desperately need three points, for the sake of their standing in the league and for the sake of the confidence of the squad, the supporters and Gerard Houllier himself. They've shown once again that they have the talent to play with the best teams in the league and it's far past time that they put their inconsistency behind them. Sunderland are a team Villa can beat. Villa need to start beating more teams. There's not a whole lot to this. Whether they can manage to get it done remains to be seen, but make no mistake of what needs to happen in this game.
Time to shut up the critics and doomsayers, boys.