Other fixtures might look more glamorous or have an effect on both the top and the bottom of the Premier League table, but believe me: there is not a more important fixture to be played this midweek than Aston Villa v Newcastle United.
Two clubs that have, over the course of the Premier League era, either graced the Champions League (Newcastle) or won major trophies (obviously not Newcastle) find themselves in a desperate scrap for survival, and both sides’ fall from grace has, for differing reasons, been sharp and alarming.
Just one point and one place separates these two clubs, who sit fourth and fifth bottom of the Premier League ahead of a match of huge significance for both, and while ‘must win’ is stretching it, the loser of this match will be placed even deeper into the mire.
There has been much talk of the last few games being ‘season defining’ for Aston Villa: if that is the case, then the Holte End faithful must fear the worst because the last fortnight has been disastrous.
Knocked out of the Capital One Cup by League Two Bradford City and the FA Cup by Championship Millwall, failure to beat West Brom or Southampton in the league has accelerated the Villans’ slide and there seems to be little sign of it stopping.
There is no indication that Paul Lambert’s job is under immediate threat (or any threat at all, seemingly) but the reputation the Scot built up after his sterling work at Norwich City is taking a hammering, to such an extent that the match-going fans who so vociferously called for his appointment following Alex McLeish’s sacking have now turned, with many calling for Lambert’s head.
I am all for giving managers a chance, but that is understandable. McLeish’s reign was a disaster and generally seen to be the worst in living memory at Villa Park, but all the stats suggest this year is even worse: Lambert’s team have managed fewer shots, fewer goals and fewer crosses, while conceding more goals and winning even fewer points.
In fact, Villa have scored just one goal in their last six league games at Villa Park in a general run of just three wins in 15 – a truly dreadful record that has seen them lose the last three, conceding eight goals without reply.
And for all of the above reasons, the 9/5 on a Villa win is about as tempting as a Lisa Riley striptease.
Instead, I am going to ignore the draw at 11/5 and take an almighty Glenn Hoddle-style leap of faith in Newcastle getting their act together and at 6/4, I’ll be on them to take the points back to Tyneside.
Newcastle haven’t been as bad as Villa this year but they have been largely woeful, this after a fifth-placed finish last season that raised expectations far beyond anything reasonable.
Injuries have played their part, no doubt, as has a loss of form to key men, not to mention other teams wising up to the tactics employed by Alan Pardew.
The 9/5 on a Villa win is about as tempting as a Lisa Riley striptease.
Or should that be Alain Pardeaux? The former West Ham boss has been exceptionally busy in the transfer market since the Toon last played (ten days ago in the home defeat to Reading) and has, incredibly, brought in five players to bolster their small squad, all of whom are French, taking Newcastle’s Gallic first-team quota to ten.
How many will line up at Villa Park is unknown, but what that flurry of transfer activity has done is put a spring in the step of Pardew, who has come out fighting, stating that he finally has enough players to choose from and he expects an upturn in results.
He needs one: Newcastle have won just two of their last 18 in all competitions, losing 11 of the last 15, and you might wonder why, with a record like that, I would tip the Toon to win, especially with no away win in 17 attempts so far this season.
I might end up wondering that myself come 10pm, but I feel that Newcastle have better players and Villa are just shot to bits.
You can visibly see the lack of confidence running though the young Villans line-up and the Villa Park crowd, never shy to turn on the players at the best of times, are becoming increasingly agitated.
Anything other than an early goal could turn a tense atmosphere into a poisonous one, playing right into Newcastle’s hands.
But while there has been nothing about Villa that gives you encouragement – the basic lack of organisation and leadership is of huge concern – Newcastle have showed occasional flashes and you would think any repeat of the performances in defeat at Old Trafford or, for 80 minutes, the Emirates would be enough to see off Lambert’s side.
Both sides have been so bad that it could well turn out to be the equivalent of two bald men fighting over a comb, but I think that Newcastle have got a bit more hair and I am taking the punt at 6/4.