Neither Aston Villa nor Sunderland had anticipated being in such a perilous position back in August, but when the two sides meet tonight at Villa Park in the bottom six of the Premier League and fighting for their top flight lives, the only goal now is too ensure they aren’t playing Championship football next season.
It was meant to be so different. Aston Villa, shed of the colourless anti-football served up by Alex McLeish, were a club with optimism in their veins and a spring in their step. The appointment of Paul Lambert was universally popular with everyone at the club and after years of slow decline, the revival was set to start.
But however talented Lambert may or may not be, nobody seemed to notice the unbalanced and inexperienced playing squad that was too reliant on ageing and underperforming star names, and Villa’s season has, bar a few bright spots, been a series of disastrous lows that leaves them just two points above third bottom Wigan with four games to play.
As for Sunderland, Martin O’Neill had swooped in as the club’s saviour last December and despite a poor end to 2011/12, the Wearside faithful were well within their rights to anticipate the new season with optimism after some decent summer transfer business. What followed on the pitch was a dour, painful catastrophe, and when the Northern Irishman was sacked with seven games left, it was with good cause: the Black Cats were sleepwalking to the Championship.
They still might end up there, but the appointment of Paolo Di Canio seems to have had the revitalising effect that chairman Ellis Short wanted and two wins from his three games have not only subjected us to some brilliant theatrics from the Italian, but have lifted Sunderland five points from the drop zone and with safety in sight.
And with both teams in a similar position, I think the 9/4 on a draw at Villa Park tonight looks like the best bet. Sunderland are more tempting at the same price than Villa are at 6/5, but I think siding with the stalemate is the way to go here.
I can’t be backing Villa are 6/5, and neither should you. The Villans have won just eight games all season, fewer than anybody save the already relegated duo of Reading and Queens Park Rangers, and their home form has been dismal all year.
With just four wins and eight defeats, Villa have the third worst home points tally in the division and have scored just 16 goals in their 17 games – only poor old QPR have managed fewer.
So the 6/5 on Villa is easily ignored, and I must admit that although Sunderland at 9/4 is tempting, I am still going to stick with the draw at the same odds. It is a bit pointless factoring in the Black Cats’ pre-Di Canio form and statistics given how incredible the transformation under the former Swindon boss, but I am going to urge caution rather than get completely carried away.
The Italian is a fine manager but he isn’t a miracle worker, and I’m not too sure Sunderland are really a good enough team to be winning three games in a row at this level. If taken at face value, the Wearsiders scored through an own goal in defeat at Chelsea, notched three world class goals in the 3-0 win at Newcastle and were handed a goal in the 1-0 at Everton (albeit with another good finish). So as improved as they have been with regards to intensity, organisation, desire, pressing and so on, they still lack cutting edge and they still lack a goalscorer, especially with Steven Fletcher injured.
A draw would also be an acceptable result for Sunderland, taking them six clear of safety with games against Stoke and Southampton to come, and a team that has lost nine times on the road can’t be readily backed.
So I’ll stick with the draw at 9/4.