SUNDERLAND, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 06: New Sunderland manager Martin O'Neill is unveiled during a press conference at Stadium of Light on December 6, 2011 in Sunderland, England. (Photo by Stu Forster/Getty Images)
Well, it’s finally here; the game everyone’s been waiting for since early December. Martin O’Neill makes his return to Villa Park for the first time since
throwing his toys out of the pram and crawling off in a huff tendering his resignation to the Aston Villa board less than a week before the start of what turned out to be a pretty terrible season. MON still isn’t talking about his reasons for leaving, but he really doesn’t have to; he was upset about a perceived lack of investment and James Milner being sold out from under him, both things he was almost certainly aware of well before August, and though he had every right to leave what he clearly felt was a less than ideal situation he is also a magnificent prick for doing so when and in the manner that he did. With MON’s Sunderland club coming to town, now’s the chance for the Aston Villa faithful to let him know how they feel about his actions and for the club to extract at least some measure of revenge.
At least that’s been the way a lot of people have been picturing things in their mind for the past three months or so. To be sure there are more than a few Villa fans that are more than happy to give MON a warm welcome on his visit to Birmingham. There are more than a few folks that didn’t much care for the way he went about leaving but still believe that the good times outweigh the bad taste left by his departure. (I disagree with this outlook, for the record, but it’s certainly a rational and completely defensible way of looking at things.) And outside of the lack of agreement over the treatment O’Neill deserves, there’s the little matter of Villa’s slow and excruciating slide down the table and within striking distance of the bottom three; when MON took over on Wearside it was the Black Cats that looked to be in danger, sitting 17th in the table and looking an absolute disaster. Villa wasn’t exactly setting the world on fire, but 9th seemed a pretty comfortable place to be even at that early date.
Since O’Neill took over, Sunderland has picked up 32 points from 20 games, a pace that would have them in the Champions League conversation had they managed it over a full season. Villa? 19 points. But they’ve played one fewer game, so they’ve got that going for them. 2012 has to this point been a tremendously awful year for the team, with some promising performances early in the season giving way to the completely miserable dreck that’s been on display for the past three months. Even the most optimistic in their feelings about Alex McLeish are beginning to abandon hope, while the pessimists have begun to consider a spell in the Championship next season a foregone conclusion.
From my perspective, beating Martin O’Neill’s Sunderland team wouldn’t change much about my feelings toward the future. No result the rest of the way could manage that. But it certainly would make me feel a lot better in the moment, because I still have a great deal of animosity towards that wee little bastard and nothing would make me happier than to see his dejected little goblin face scowling away on the touchline tomorrow. Petty? Sure. But so is planning your departure for the very moment that it would cause the maximum amount of damage to a club your wasteful signings are still in danger of helping run into the ground.
There’s also the added (less cynical types might say "primary") bonus of going a very long way towards securing Villa’s Premier League status for next season. Villa’s relegation rivals all face tough competition this weekend; QPR host Spurs, Wigan travels to Craven Cottage, Blackburn is at home against Norwich City and Bolton has the unenviable task of welcoming Swansea City and their maddening keep-ball to the Reebok. There may be a point or two in there, but any of the clubs below Villa picking up a win would be a pretty major surprise (to me at least.) If they can manage a win against Sunderland, get any kind of result against Bolton and aren’t let down by the rest of the league, the relegation threat becomes a near impossibility.
The problem, of course, is that Villa has to beat Sunderland in order to make all of this worrying a thing of the past. Frankly, based on what I’ve seen of O’Neill’s boys, I don’t really see that being all that likely. Anyone that’s been watching Villa long enough to remember the MON era isn’t going to be surprised by what they see from the Black Cats; counters and set pieces ahoy, ladies and gents, and if you’ve seen fit to take the cover from your eyes while watching Villa this season you’ll know that isn’t the best news. Sunderland doesn’t score a whole lot of goals, but that’s largely because they don’t need to and also because they’re so good at controlling the pace of the game. It’s the rare manager whose teams can completely dictate play from a bunker-and-counter system, but that’s been O’Neill’s hallmark his entire career. And though he’s generally happy with a 1-0 or 2-1 kind of win (especially on the road) he’s also got a vindictive streak a mile long; if Martin O’Neill feels like embarrassing his former employers, he’s going to have no second thoughts about doing so.
Certainly, this isn’t the near-impossible mountain to climb that games against the top clubs seem going in.
Sunderland is good, probably better than they have any right to be, but they’re far from elite. They’re a mid-level collection of talent well suited to the style of play favored by a pretty tremendous manager. In other words, they’re beatable. They have weaknesses. But you have to know how to exploit those weaknesses, and I’m increasingly of the opinion that Alex McLeish doesn’t know how to do such things. Either his tactical approach of "be really big and kick the hell out of the ball" holds up and Villa manages a draw, the gap in talent is wide enough that his deficiencies don’t come into play or he just gets incredibly lucky. That doesn’t make winning any less fun on the rare occasions that it happens, but it does mean that the glow fades much more quickly.
On this occasion though, there’s an opportunity to make the good feelings last a whole lot longer. At least for this bitter old crank, which despite the fact that I love each and every one of you, is all that matters. Assuming it’s not the last hurrah of a team doomed to go down, this win could absolutely make the season for me; more than the sucker-punch at Stamford Bridge, more than Andi Weimann’s late winner against Fulham, three points from this game would justify all of the swearing and sulking that’s marred at least a quarter of nearly every weekend since August. I’m certainly not expecting it, but a fellow can dream.