LONDON, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 31: Stephen Ireland (L) of Aston Villa celebrates his goal with team mates during the Barclays Premier League match between Chelsea and Aston Villa at Stamford Bridge on December 31, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
This weekend was always supposed to be a lot of fun. The wedding was lovely (well, for me at least; Kirsten might have a different take on the latter stages of the reception) and my wife and I are off work together for two whole days in a row (not at all a normal occurrence) and made all sorts of plans. I'd have enough time to catch the Chelsea match, but not much time to do any writing. I didn't anticipate that being much of an issue, to put it mildly.
And then Villa had to go and play the best game they've played in years, in the process handing Chelsea a fairly humiliating defeat. Everything about this game was wonderful; Villa played defensively, as you'd expect them to do at Stamford Bridge, but they also weren't shy about trying to beat Chelsea on the break. There was far less of the aimless hoofing and balls being put into touch than there has been in games past. Villa looked to hit back on the break, and if it wasn't there they settled in for a spell of possession. Defensively, the back line played deep but there was a lot of pressure put on Chelsea in transition, and it was that pressure that led directly to Villa's two late goals. Alex McLeish got the tactics pretty close to spot on (which is actually kind of starting to look like a trend) and the players put in a tremendous effort.
The win capped off a December that was far less disastrous than many of us feared, with Villa dropping just one place despite facing Manchester United, Liverpool, Arsenal and Chelsea. 7 points from 18 isn't a fantastic pace, but given the level competition and the improvement Villa showed as the month went along it wasn't a bad way to end the year. In the most brutal run of fixtures they'll face all season long, Villa gave us some reasons to be legitimately excited for the rest of the season. But if the good feelings are going to carry over into the new year, Villa need to take care of business against a beatable Swansea City team this evening in front of their home crowd. Swansea gave Villa a game in the reverse fixture just over a month ago, playing their possession game well and holding Villa to a 0-0 draw. That was a mildly irritating but acceptable result at the time (especially given the sombre mood of the day) but it won't do this time around.
Swansea go about things in an interesting manner, building from the back and using an intricate passing game to eat up possession and prevent the other team from scoring simply by preventing them from getting a sniff of the ball. It's nice to watch, and it works well for them; they've allowed just 23 goals, seventh-fewest in the Premier League. But despite having some pretty solid attacking players in the team, Swansea has scored just 18 goals, only Wigan's 17 a lower tally in the league. They lack a truly dangerous finisher and a real creative presence, and with the way Villa's defense has been performing as of late Swansea shouldn't be expected to cause much trouble.
Villa have the edge in pretty much every category, and dropping points would be a pretty tremendous disappointment. It will be quite interesting to see the kind of approach Villa take tomorrow evening; there's certainly a case to be made for going on the offensive early on, but I'm of the opinion that the smarter approach is to play a slightly more aggressive version of the game we saw against Chelsea, with a deep defensive approach, high pressure in the midfield and an eye towards quick transitions into counters. Swansea has trouble breaking down solid defenses and Villa looked as dangerous as they have all season on the counter on Saturday; best to see if that same approach can have similar success against a weaker side that isn't going to be playing as though they're favored as well.
It will also be interesting to see how the team looks with Darren Bent back in the side from the beginning, as he presumably will be this evening. Villa has looked a different team since the embarrassing performance against Liverpool, and that's led to more than a few people pointing out that Bent's absence has been a common thread in all three games (his late -but eventful- substitute appearance against Chelsea notwithstanding.) It's an interesting thought, but I'm not completely convinced. The changes in Villa's approach have been at the back and in the midfield, and though Gabby Agbonlahor is a bit more of a well-rounded player there's no denying that the build-up play and service has been better these past few games. If Darren Bent is playing against Arsenal or Stoke, there's a good chance the month of December looks more like a pleasant surprise than a non-disaster than ended on a high note. It's certainly possible that Bent's presence up top changes the team's approach for the worse, but until we've got a fair comparison I'll remain skeptical.
Depending on the results of the other mid-week games, a Villa win could make the picture downright rosy; as many as 11 points between Villa and the drop zone and as few as four between Villa and what is likely to be a European place could be possible by the end of Wednesday's games. There's not a game that doesn't look completely winnable on the schedule until mid-February, and it's possible there will be some reinforcements brought in before the end of this month. I'm still far from convinced that Alex McLeish was the right decision as manager of the club, and I'm a very long way from liking him. But for the first time since he's been hired, I feel something approaching hope that this season could be about more than survival. There's still a long way to go, but 2012 may end up being an improvement over 2011 after all.