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Ambling Aston Villa Must Step up or Face Another Championship Season

Ambling Aston Villa Must Step up or Face Another Championship Season

Sunday, 10 February, 2019 - 08:30
Andre Green celebrates scoring the injury-time equalizer that earned Aston Villa a 3-3 draw with Sheffield United. (Getty Images)
London - Ben Fisher
The good news for Aston Villa is that they can still take points off the eight teams above them but, with 15 games to go, time is running out if the club have designs of avoiding a fourth consecutive season in the Championship. One win from seven matches has left a faltering Villa off the pace, chugging behind in the race to reach the play-offs. For too long, all season in truth, what would be the most expensively assembled squad in the division but for Stoke City have flattered to deceive, a reality that cost Steve Bruce his job and led to the arrival of Dean Smith, who grew up in Great Barr, four miles from Villa Park.

On the horizon, a crucial period of three potential season-defining games in nine days beckons, starting with Sheffield United at home on Friday. They ultimately tied 3-3.

A glance at how Villa compare with their rivals speaks volumes about what has been a distinctly curious season so far: only the bottom club, Ipswich, and Rotherham have conceded more goals than the 46 they have shipped, yet only the leaders, Norwich, and fifth-placed Middlesbrough have lost fewer league matches than Villa’s seven.

Villa have drawn a league joint-high of 14 games. They are four points shy of sixth-placed Bristol City but each of the teams occupying the play-off spots – except Chris Wilder’s Sheffield United in third – have a game in hand. For an ambling Villa, it feels like a case of now or never.

“The focus is totally on trying to get hold of a couple of teams above us and getting into that top six as quick as possible,” said Tommy Elphick, the defender who has impressed since being recalled from a loan spell at Hull last month. “We sat down and had a chat as a group before the Reading game, after the transfer window had closed, to say: ‘This is us now.’ Regardless of what situation you are in at the club, whether you have six months left on your contract or three years, we all realize that if we’re winning games and looking towards the top six then it is better for everyone.

“Together you can move mountains when you get a group that’s all pulling in the same direction.

“Hopefully there’s a good run around the corner from us. If you can string five, six, seven wins on the bounce, looking at a team like Hull where they have come the bottom three to putting themselves in contention after going on a run like that, that’s what we need to be doing. We are well placed to put a run like that together. I think we had a strong window and when we get a couple of players back, it’s only going to make us even stronger.”

If February looks key, January proved crucial as Smith strengthened his squad with the £7m addition of a new No. 1 goalkeeper in Lovre Kalinic, the Croatia international. Villa also reinforced at center-back, paying Bournemouth £1m to borrow Tyrone Mings until May but, most importantly, they retained Tammy Abraham, leaving Wolves disappointed. Some of the outgoings raise questions, though, with Ross McCormack and Scott Hogan – £24m-worth of a squad that cost in excess of £87m – leaving on loan, to Motherwell and Sheffield United respectively, and Villa are no longer paying Yannick Bolasie after the winger’s stay was terminated.

Other high earners, Mile Jedinak and Glenn Whelan, are out of contract in the summer, when Micah Richards, who last played for the club in 2016, is likely to retire after a long-term knee problem. It remains to be seen how Villa fare in terms of financial fair play, although the chief executive, Christian Purslow, has sought to soothe fears that they could fail to meet FFP regulations should they not win promotion. Championship clubs are not permitted to lose more than £39m over a three-season period.

If Villa end up charging into the play-offs, Abraham will likely propel them there. A prolific scorer in the Championship, Abraham is a goal away from hitting the 20-goal landmark for the second time in three seasons.

He is also in line to become the first Villa player to score 20 league goals in a season since Peter Withe – whom Smith used to watch from the Holte End as a kid – in 1980-81. Jonathan Kodjia is the club’s second-highest scorer with six goals but much as Villa could do with sharing the goalscoring load, perhaps more pressing is the need to find a creative solution in the continued absence of Jack Grealish, with the club reluctant to rush the midfielder back from a troubling shin injury.

Villa have won only two of 10 games without Grealish since December. “We can’t be a club that just relies on Jack Grealish,” Elphick said. “That’s unfair on him and it’s not a way to build a team. As good as Jack is, we need to come up with different solutions when the likes of Jack and Tammy might not be available.”

Smith knew on taking the job that he would not be afforded a honeymoon period and Villa must embrace supporters’ expectations as they seek a return to the top flight. “Pressure and playing for Aston Villa should be a privilege,” Elphick said. “But we need to turn that into doing something that is really significant and get us back where the club belongs. With the history of the club and what they’ve won, what we are trying to do is on a much smaller scale, but it is very significant in terms of the direction the club wants to go in the next 10 years.

“I feel the club is in a lot better hands now than what we might have been last year when we were almost gambling with the future of the club to get back up. This manager comes with a structure and a plan that maybe needs a little bit of time to get it where he wants it and, given that time, the club long-term will definitely be able to sustain itself as a top Premier League club again.”

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