Aston Villa face deja vu as injuries threaten to derail ceiling smash

Martin O'Neill and Unai Emery as Aston Villa managers
Martin O'Neill and Unai Emery as Aston Villa managers

After back-to-back 1-0 wins over Manchester City and Arsenal in early December, it seemed Aston Villa could mount an unlikely title challenge. Less than two months later, they face a battle to secure Champions League qualification.

Their season is beginning to follow a familiar pattern of recent Premier League history, where a side makes a valiant attempt at gate-crashing the rather exclusive ‘Big Six’ party only to stumble towards the end. Will Unai Emery’s team be the latest to be turned away at the door?

While few, if any, truly expected the Villains to last the distance with Manchester City, Arsenal or Liverpool, there was optimism in the second city unseen in over a decade after home victories against the first two in early December.

It wasn’t just the victories but the manner of those victories with their dominance of the champions particularly impressive. It was both a rarity in the Pep Guardiola City era and confirmation of the stunning transformation under Emery.

Those results put Villa in a position to go top of the tree a week later with a win at home to lowly Sheffield United on December 22. A late draw was instead the result, marking the first dropped points at home all season.

Villa had not led the league so deep into a season since 1998/99, and perhaps the increased pressure, as well as the change in expectations from the summer, played a part in a limp display against Chris Wilder’s side. The absence of Pau Torres was undoubtedly also a major factor; he was the glue that held that previously sturdy defence together.

Things have tailed off quite a bit with Villa winning just two of their six league games since: a tight 3-2 at home to 19th-placed Burnley and, in fairness, a 5-0 hammering of the Blades at Bramall Lane.

There has been two losses to Manchester United, the first at Old Trafford after being 2-0 up, and the second last weekend’s damaging late loss that leaves Erik ten Hag’s men just five points behind and with plenty of momentum to boot.

Scott McTominay’s 87th-minute winner made it three losses in a row at Villa Park, quite a contrast from their previously imperious home form that had seen 15 wins on the bounce until the draw with Chris Wilder’s side.

The 3-1 loss to Newcastle was a surprise, as was Chelsea’s victory by the same score-line that dumped Villa out of the FA Cup in the fourth round.

To add to their current woes, Boubacar Kamara sustained a season-ending ACL injury in the loss to United, the third Villa player to suffer the a serious knee injury after Tyrone Mings and Emiliano Buendia. Diego Carlos also picked up a hamstring injury in training.

Villa did look a lot better in that game than in previous weeks, with much more energy and verve in their play. Unfortunately, they found Andre Onana in solid form and Ollie Watkins, Jacob Ramsey and others missing theirs in front of goal.

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For fans and those still at the club from the last time Villa dared to dream, there must be a slight sense of déjà vu.

The late 2000s saw Martin O’Neill lead the club into a similar position to Emery, with Champions League qualification well within reach deep into the second half of the season.

In 2008/09, away form was Villa’s strength, with 10 wins from their first 13 league games the best in the division, and a 2-0 win at Blackburn on February 7 making it seven on the spin, leaving them sitting pretty in third.

A team starring Gareth Barry, James Milner and Ashley Young – who O’Neill called the best player in the world after a stunning late winner at Everton earlier in the season – appeared on the cusp of making the next step but instead, what followed was an epic collapse.

There was no league win for nearly three months, with Villa winning just two of their last 12 league games, none coming away from home. Six of their 10 league defeats came in this period. They eventually finished sixth, 10 points behind perennial fourth-placers Arsenal.

The following season saw a similar story and the same league finish, albeit in less dramatic fashion, as Villa were usurped by both Tottenham and Manchester City, marking the origins of the ‘Big Six’ we know and love/loathe today.

But for a dodgy lasagne, Spurs would have qualified for the Champions League in 2005/06 and by 2010, Harry Redknapp had built a rather formidable squad featuring Gareth Bale and Luka Modric amongst others.

As for City, two years into their Abu Dhabi ownership era, it was only just beginning – they have not finished outside the top four since, and only once have they dropped below third.

Villa fell hard and fell fast from there, with Milner following Barry to City in 2010 and Young and Stewart Downing leaving for United and Liverpool in 2011.

It has taken over 10 years, relegation, Championship purgatory, multiple managers and a change in ownership for the club to get back into European contention and within touching distance of the top table in the club game.

It is an opportunity that Villa need to grasp for both them and for the Premier League as a whole.

Since 2003/04 – the summer in which Roman Abramovich bought Chelsea not so coincidentally – only two teams outside the ‘Big Six’ have played in the Champions League: Leicester after their miracle title win in 2016 and Newcastle this season after their unexpectedly rapid rise post-Saudi takeover.

That aspect of their success cannot be ignored and makes it hard to be deemed in any way positive.

The Foxes under Brendan Rodgers were very Villa-like in a sense, coming up short on the final day in both 2019/20 and 2020/21 after spending most of both seasons inside the top four. Newcastle had finished fourth in 2002/03 but lost a qualifier, as did Everton two years later.

It is not befitting of the so-called ‘Best League in the World’ to be so ringfenced, but it would not be the first time a ‘bad season’ for a so-called bigger club trumped that of a ‘great season’ for another.

This is the current case with United and Villa yet there are just five points between them, with Spurs a point ahead in fourth position.

That likely extra Champions League spot based off the league’s strong co-efficient (woo!) does give Villa a bit more wiggle room, with three likely going into two.

What could go against them is their own participation in Europe this season, with both United and Spurs only in domestic action for the rest of the campaign.

It is an extra work load, and Emery will want to add to his already bulging trophy cabinet, while surely most Villa fans want to experience what West Ham did last summer in Prague.

The Conference League is extremely winnable but could come at a cost, although Villa have quite a deep squad despite their current injuries.

The loss of Kamara is a big blow, but Villa are well-stocked in midfield with Jacob Ramsey slowly coming back to full fitness after his early-season metatarsal injury. It would be a perfect time for Nicolo Zaniolo to step up as well, having flattered to deceive since his summer loan move.

At the back, the absence of Mings has not been largely felt such is the centre-back depth, with Torres’ return to the line-up post-ankle issues timed to coincide with the absence of Carlos.

Ezri Konsa is likely to be out for several more weeks, as will back-up striker Jhon Duran, but both should be ready to go by early-to-mid March, by which time Villa could be over their current blip.

Their next three league games seem very winnable with trips to Fulham and Luton coming either side of a Midlands home derby with Nottingham Forest. A minimum of seven points should be the target here with a tough run of games to follow that starts with Spurs at Villa Park on Sunday March 10.

It might not quite be now or never for Villa when it comes to Champions League qualification, but it certainly is not far off. Their own history should serve as both a warning and a guide for the rest of the season.

A win at Craven Cottage would ease their concerns, but anything less will only amplify them.