BOLTON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 11: Gary Caldwell (#5) of Wigan Athletic is congratulated by his team-mates after heading in the opening goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Bolton Wanderers and Wigan Athletic at Reebok Stadium on February 11, 2012 in Bolton, England. (Photo by Chris Brunskill/Getty Images)
This is one of those stretches where it's been easy (for me at least) to almost forget the season is still happening. It's been two weeks since the last time Aston Villa played, and that was a rather unmemorable loss to Manchester City. Intellectually I know there are still quite a few games left, but it feels less a part of the ebb-and-flow of daily life when not much is going on. But that will change tomorrow. And though a late-February trip to the DW Stadium to face Wigan was not one a lot of people would have circled back in August, current circumstances have aligned in a way that could make this game a pretty important one in terms of the way the rest of the season plays out.
Lets take a look at the table; it's easy to see Villa in 15th and fixate on that, but the point totals tell a bit of a different story. There are four pretty clearly defined tiers, with City, United and Spurs fighting it out at the top; Arsenal, Chelsea, Newcastle and Liverpool in the hunt for the remaining European spots; QPR, Blackburn, Wolves, Bolton and Wigan the clubs currently at risk for relegation; and then everyone else jammed into the middle. Villa is currently at the bottom of that group, 7 points (and 16 goals) clear of the drop, 7 points behind 8th place Norwich City. That's a fair-sized gap in either direction, but fair from insurmountable with 13 games still to play.
As it stands, I have a very hard time seeing Villa end seriously threatened by relegation. It's not just the seven points, it''s that three different teams would have to make up the gap and QPR's -11 goal difference is the closest to Villa's -5 of the teams below. Lots of things have to go wrong for Villa, and lots of things have to go right for at least three different teams that are all worse than Villa. A top-half finish looks a similarly difficult task. Sunderland and Everton both clearly look to be better teams, and a case could be made for Fulham, Stoke, Swansea and Norwich City. But when the talent levels are so close, luck and the quality of opposition can make a huge difference.
That's where this weekend having the potential to be a bit of a turning point comes in to play. Fulham, West Brom, Norwich, Stoke and Swansea all have difficult tests ahead. There's a lot of ground to be made up, assuming Villa can manage to pick up three points. The downside: if Wigan manage a win, things start to look a little hairier. They'll look even worse if another of the clubs currently sitting 16-20 take home three points, and QPR has a winnable game at home against Fulham. The odds are quite good that the teams in the drop zone tomorrow will have between 20-22 points, but there's little doubt that gap would seem less reassuring after losing to the team currently in the Premier League's basement.
And Wigan's standing is really what makes this one so important. I still think they'll avoid the drop, just because it's kind of what they do. But good football teams don't enter the final third of the season in 20th position. There aren't many teams Villa should expect to bear no matter the venue, but Wigan is most certainly one of them. If Villa can't manage to win against the Latics, well, they probably deserve to be in a relegation fight.
There's not much question that Villa is the more talented team. But that's not worth a whole lot unless they can put together a decent performance. We're all well aware of Villa's problems; inconsistencies in the attack, a less-than-solid central midfield and a defense prone to ruining good performances by allowing some of the most mind-numbingly easy goals you're ever going to see. This is a team good enough to overcome shortcomings in one phase of the game, but any more than that and they've got trouble. And given that they're missing their best defender in Richard Dunne, that's all the more reason to lean on the attacking players, take the game to Wigan and keep them from establishing the pace of the game and dominating possession with their passing game. The style favored by the Latics can all so easily rip Villa's back-four apart, and the best way from keeping them from employing it is to make them work so hard in defense that they don't have time to find a rhythym.
But as per usual, the worry is that Villa will do the opposite; with Dunne out injured, the fear is that Alex McLeish may well opt to sit back and try to cover for the deficiency in that manner. And as we're all likely aware, that just isn't going to work. Villa is the better team. They've got far too much attacking firepower for Wigan's shaky defense to handle. They're the favorites, and they need to act like it, to make Wigan change to adapt to what they're determined to do rather than the other way around. If Villa do that, Wigan can't beat them. If they come out looking to attack and believe they can do it, they'll win. It really is that simple. Otherwise? The next few months could be quite interesting, and not in a good way at all.