With many of their relegation rivals facing stiff competition, Aston Villa has a golden chance to make their outlook slightly less dire. Can Villa pull themselves together against a newly strengthened Newcastle and give themselves some much needed breathing room?
If Aston Villa wants to achieve safety, they're going to need some help. Unless you feel like this team is a sleeping giant, ready to rip off a string of wins any day now, Villa can't afford the other teams in similarly poor circumstances to step up their game. In that sense, weeks like this are especially important; while Villa has the chance to overtake Newcastle with a win, teams such as QPR, Reading, Southampton and Wigan will be facing very stiff competition. This is a golden opportunity for Villa to gain ground on the lower-mid-table pack and put some distance between themselves and the teams below them. The combination of a win and favorable results elsewhere could mean the state of the season is significantly better after Wednesday than it is right now.
Of course, there's really not a whole lot that Villa can do about the other games. If Southampton can go to Old Trafford and earn a result, fair play to them. The same can be said of every other game involving teams that are currently in the relegation mix. The only thing in Aston Villa's control is what happens tonight at Villa Park, and that's not an especially comforting thought. To be sure, Newcastle is in a horrible state right now. They've actually taken fewer points from their past five games than Villa, and they remain without a win away from St. James' Park on the season.
Newcastle has taken a distinctly different approach to rectifying their struggles than Villa, signing five new players for a total likely to be in excess of £20 million. While many jokes have been made about Mike Ashley's attempt to buy Ligue 1 and the Toon's somewhat desperate shopping spree isn't necessarily the most responsible or sustainable thing you're ever going to see, it is frustrating to watch a club just one point ahead of Villa be so active in the market. It certainly doesn't help matters that two of Newcastle's new signings (Moussa Sissoko and Massadio Haïdara) have been heavily linked to Villa, or that any of the five would walk into Villa's starting lineup. Whether it's a strategy that would be justifiable (or even feasible) in Villa's case is a question for another day, but it's very hard to argue that Newcastle hasn't most avoided relegation thanks to their winter window shopping spree.
On the bright side, it's unlikely that Newcastle's new signings are yet at their best. All five players look like very solid bets to perform well in the Premier League, but there is an adjustment period involved any time a player moves to a new team (let alone five) and that's especially true when moving up a level. This isn't as good a time to be facing Newcastle as it might have been a week or two ago, but it's likely a much better time to be facing them than it will be a month or two from now. And though it almost seems like it happened years ago, it's important to keep in mind that a Villa side that did not as of yet include Christian Benteke largely outplayed Newcastle and earned a draw at St. James' Park. And though the twin cup failures of last week have rightly dragged the mood of the club even lower than it was before, Villa's performances in recent league games just haven't been that bad.
Newcastle is undeniably the more talented of the two sides, but that hasn't been much help to them lately. There's pretty clearly something else happening on Tyneside, and it's something that is probably going to take more than five new signings to solve completely. Aston Villa is in really bad shape right now, but so is Newcastle. Supporting a football club is somewhat like living in a bubble, especially in these day of the social media echo chamber. When one is so engrossed in the ups-and-downs (or in some cases just downs) of their own club, it's easy to forget that other clubs have problems of their own. This is a big, big opportunity for Villa to improve their situation and Newcastle is a vulnerable side. If Villa can manage to take three points, there might still be some room for optimism left in this season yet.