Last week’s 1-0 victory against Bolton was a glimpse of light in a particularly stormy patch for Villa. After a series of three draws out of four games slowed them down at a critical time in the race for fourth place, a trip to Stamford Bridge and a dress rehearsal for the FA Cup semi final beckoned. What no one was expecting, however, was a 7-1 victory for Chelsea. The result sparked off a number of stories suggesting manager Martin O’Neill was to exit the club; or, as some reports claimed, had already left. After O’Neill himself moved to quash the rumours, the focus must now be on a strong finish to the season, as finishing fourth still remains the target.
- A repeat of this scenario is not an option for Villa in tomorrow’s FA Cup clash
Villa currently lie in seventh place, five points behind fourth-placed Manchester City but only four above Everton, the Toffees making a late bid to snatch a European qualification spot. But for tomorrow only, league affairs will be forgotten. A second trip to Wembley for Villa fans could turn into a third if they overcome Chelsea to reach the FA Cup final for the first time in ten years. You can forgive the fans for not being in the most optimistic of spirits, but a repeat of last fortnight’s drubbing is highly doubtful – O’Neill will send out a much more motivated and disciplined side this time around. However, Chelsea go into tomorrow’s game on the back of a 2-1 victory against title rivals Manchester United, with Florent Malouda in frightening form and Didier Drogba and Nicolas Anelka as dangerous as ever. It will be a difficult task for Villa, but victory will be the perfect morale booster ahead of the end-of-season run in.
Only six league games remain of the 2009/10 season. Next up for Villa is Everton, league positioning making victory all the more vital on Wednesday evening. David Moyes’ side, despite drawing their last two games, are finding form of late. Moyes has done an impressive job coping with injuries to several key players in his squad, and the game will not be an easy one; perhaps more difficult than Wolves and Sunderland, two sides which Villa could not break down at home. A place in the FA Cup final may give them the confidence they need to overcome Everton, but another draw is probably the most likely result.
Two consecutive away games follow, against soon-to-be relegated Portsmouth, and fellow strugglers Hull City. While Pompey no longer have anything to play for, they must not be underestimated as a strong team spirit and dedicated fans at Fratton Park can often inspire them to victory. Having already won 4-2 there this season in the Carling Cup, however, makes Villa favourites to collect all three points. Similarly, while Hull will be striving to collect as many points as possible to help their relegation fight, Villa will be looking to gain as much ground as they can on rivals Spurs, Liverpool and Man City.
- John Carew and Stiliyan Petrov: two key players for Villa as they enter the most crucial part of the season
Sunday 25th April sees the second fixture between Villa and rivals Birmingham City. Alex McLeish is surely up for nomination to receive the Manager of the Year award, guiding the Blues to a top-half finish in their first season back in the Premier League. The last Second City derby to be played at Villa Park saw the home side record a remarkable 5-1 victory, but you can guarantee it will not be repeated. It is by no means the same Birmingham side as the one fighting relegation two years ago, and Villa will need to be on top form to overcome their rivals this time around. Captain Liam Ridgewell will be hoping to lead fellow ex-Villains Kevin Phillips and Craig Gardner to their first win over Villa since 2004/05 in the Blues fans’ own ‘cup final,’ and it will be difficult to call this close and heated encounter.
The race for fourth place may well be over as Villa enter their last two league games, away at Man City and at home against Blackburn. The fixture at the City of Manchester Stadium will be an interesting one, Villa’s opponents providing a tougher challenge than many, and the quality of Tevez, Adebayor and co may be too hot for Villa to handle, particularly if they have already secured a finishing place above them in the league. Villa’s game against Blackburn will be the fifth time the two teams have met this season. And a win will round off nicely a fairly successful season for Villa, even without a Champions League spot.
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