Aston Villa came through a nasty stretch of games with heads held reasonably high, but with the competition getting significantly less stiff over the next few weeks, it's time to start racking up points.
Somehow, it's almost December. I'm not entirely sure how that happened, but the fact that half of the stations on the radio are now playing Christmas music is pretty difficult to ignore. That means that the season is now three-and-a-half months old, and that more than a third of the games have been played. As you've likely noticed, Aston Villa currently sit 18th in the table. To say that the club is in a relegation battle is likely quite premature, but it's equally disingenuous to claim that it's still early; there's plenty of time left to turn things around, but Villa really ought to consider getting said turning-around under way here pretty shortly.
Looking back over the past month, it's difficult to feel as though Villa could have reasonably been expected to do much more with the challenge with which they were presented. November got off to a decent start with a much needed win over Sunderland, and though they took just one point from their next three they went toe-to-toe with league leaders Manchester United, had a largely solid effort against Manchester City spoiled by a late avalanche that followed directly from two very questionable refereeing decisions, and were unlucky not to win against a struggling but still very good Arsenal side. Call me a Pollyanna if you wish (and it's probably not an entirely unfair characterization) but it was difficult for me to feel too incredibly pessimistic given how well Villa performed over large stretches of three very difficult games.
Reading doesn't offer the same margin of error. In some ways, playing well against United and Arsenal (and showing flashes against City) bought Villa a little less rope; getting throttled in three consecutive games has a way of lowering expectations, but now that we all know Villa can play well against good teams it's reasonable to expect them to do the same against bad teams. That's probably not entirely fair seeing as how Villa has probably been worse than Reading on the balance of the season, but it's difficult to argue that the team we've seen over the past month is the same team we saw in August and September. After the 4-1 loss at Southampton, everyone was more or less holding their breath and hoping the team would improve; in spite of some rough going in the points-earning department, we've seen some very encouraging signs that they've done just that.
But until they start winning games and racking up enough points to put some separation between themselves and the likes of this evening's opponents, whether or not that improvement will be sufficient to make the remainder of the season less nerve-wracking than last is unknown. Villa can hang with the likes of United and Arsenal (at home at least) but can they put lesser teams away? This is a team that, in 13 games, has managed just 2 wins and 10 goals scored. Encouraging performances in games that no one expects you to win are one thing, but taking things to the next level and playing from a position of strength is quite another. And if Villa can't see off teams like Reading at home, it's clear that there's still a whole lot of work to do before anyone is going to feel especially comfortable.
None of this is to say that, from an objective position, Aston Villa ought to be regarded as clear favorites in this game. Villa do hold a one-point edge in the table, but Reading has a game in hand and a significantly more impressive goal difference. Their only win of the season came two weeks ago, over an Everton side that absolutely throttled Villa back in August, but they've hung very close in nearly every game of the year and have been unlucky in several of their six draws this season. Still, Reading is a poor Premier League team. And if Aston Villa is going to remove themselves from that same classification, this is a game that they really ought to win. And though a failure to do so wouldn't change all that much about Villa's odds of avoiding a genuine relegation fight in a material sense, it absolutely would in terms of perception.
As annoying as the narrative can be, it's hard to ignore it completely. And even those of us that try to be analytical and avoid overreaction have an emotional stake in things. I still feel very good about the future of this team under Paul Lambert and the potential of many of these young players, you've got to pick up points at some point. And if Aston Villa can't beat a team whose second leading assist provider is Nicky Shorey, well, that's not going to be good for anyone's mental well being.