At the start of February, West Brom manager Roy Hodgson was in Alex McLeish’s shoes – his team were too close to the bottom of the Premier League table for comfort, with a Midlands derby at Wolves lined-up next. The Baggies won that game 5-1 and without any cup distractions they have quietly strung good results together over eleven games which has helped move them up into the top half following last Sunday’s 1-0 win at Liverpool. They have also won three of their last four as well as four of their last five at home.
McLeish’s Aston Villa take on Hodgson’s team at the Hawthorns this afternoon, four days after they were dragged into relegation contention by a 2-1 home defeat by Bolton Wanderers. Within a minute of going in front just after the hour mark, the visitors drew level with a penalty before going in front themselves a minute later. Afterwards McLeish said: “We just have to find the back of the net more regularly and at the same time I am disappointed with the soft goals we conceded.”
The only stat McLeish can take heart from is the fact West Brom, along with Villa and relegated Wolves, have scored the least number of goals at home this season, though of course West Brom’s poor form at home in the first half of the season contributed to that. They’ve scored 11 goals in their most recent six home games including four against Sunderland and three against Blackburn Rovers. Meanwhile Villa have suffered heavy defeats at both Arsenal and Manchester United and drawn at Wigan Athletic and Blackburn. Those points might prove their saviour in the end, but while another point today mightn’t be a total disaster (depending on results elsewhere) they are badly in need of a win from somewhere.
It could be said that Aston Villa need only take a point tonight against Bolton Wanderers in the re-arranged fixture at Villa Park to stave off growing relegation concerns.
Alex McLeish’s side have not been short of producing league draws this campaign (15 in total) but it’s only four wins at home which has contributed most to their low league position (15th).
Villa fans aren’t used to spending time in the bottom half of the table, let alone finishing outside the top ten, so whatever the outcome from the remaining games, McLeish’s first season can already be labelled ‘unsuccessful’.
McLeish and Birmingham City were relegated with a total of three points more than Villa have currently with three games remaining after tonight, although in some past campaigns a total of 36 points has been enough to stay up. In each of Birmingham’s two recent relegation campaigns they earned 26 points at St Andrews – that’s two more than Villa’s maximum possible return from their home games this season, with a visit from Tottenham remaining on the penultimate weekend.
Bolton go there in even more desperate need of points it might be argued, and that is only likely to make the task more difficult for the home side.
QPR and Wigan (both on 34 points from 35 games) would have Bolton breathing down their necks in the table if Owen Coyle’s team were to come out as winners tonight. They currently sit three points adrift but this is the first of two games in hand.
Following their 2-0 defeat at Newcastle United on Easter Monday, Coyle said: “We will have to pick ourselves up and go again. We know we have got enough quality to stay in the league.” They went to Dubai for some warm weather training before returning to action at the Reebok last Saturday for a 1-1 draw and a point against Swansea City.
But enough about Bolton who I think can prevent Villa from recording only their fifth home win in the league this season. Just six games ago after Villa’s most recent league win, on March 10th, they were 11 points above the relegation places and ten points better off than Bolton. Now there’s only a five point gap between themselves and 18th place Blackburn, with the gap down to Bolton reduced to just six points despite having played a game more.
Charles N’Zogbia returned to Wigan for the first time since he left the Latics last summer for Aston Villa in a £9.5m switch.
Having been dropped by Alex McLeish for their recent home defeat to Manchester City, the manager in the build-up this week called on N’Zogbia to make a name for himself at his new club by performing more often at the level expected when they signed him.
Villa’s previous away game had been at another of N’Zogbia’s former clubs, Newcastle United. After Villa had drawn level before the interval on that occasion, McLeish pulled Stephen Ireland off at half time, then shortly before the home side scored the game’s winner, N’Zogbia was withdrawn for Emile Heskey.
Ireland and N’Zogbia were both introduced from the bench during the final twenty minutes yesterday, but after the manager’s first change during the second half – Heskey, who had been dropped, on for Marc Albrighton, who had taken’s Heskey’s place - the travelling support turned on the man in the dugout.
The draw yesterday was Villa’s seventh and fourth goalless draw in 13 games away from Villa Park this season. The one positive to take away from the this trip to the bottom club in the league was that the result ended a run of back-to-back defeats on the road in all competitions, despite being without injured defender Richard Dunne.
Afterwards, McLeish said he understood the fan’s frustration, but is the manager any nearer to knowing his best starting eleven?
None of the three Midlands clubs in the Premier League can confidently say they will be in the top flight next season, and the worst off currently, 18th placed Wolves have just sacked their manager after 25 games.
When after 12 games Aston Villa had drawn six, not many expected their position to get worse than that. But it has, and they are now in desperate need of a result like West Brom’s win at Wolves a couple of weeks ago, which marked the end of Mick McCarthy’s time in charge at Molineux.
Villa aren’t used to relegation battles, even if they see the seven point gap between themselves and QPR as a safety net. Earlier this month they had needed to come back from 2-0 down at home to the London club, otherwise the gap now would be just four points.
Bottom of the table Wigan Athletic, who have only won once at home in the league this season, host Villa tomorrow, buoyed by taking three points away at rivals Bolton Wanderers. Villa lost at Newcastle United earlier this month – despite getting back on level terms from a goal behind, that wasn’t enough in the end to earn a point - and after the game manager Alex McLeish had called on his players to show more effort. Stephen Ireland and Charles N’Zogbia were among the players who were dropped by the Scot for their next game.
After Stoke City made a great start to their winter programme they’ve been on a downward spiral since they took a point from Liverpool last month. Four consecutive league defeats have followed and going two goals behind and eventually losing 2-1 at Fulham in the last of them was an opportunity missed to secure a relatively safe domestic position before the European knockout stages began.
After missing out on further progress in the Europa League - they had finished runners-up in their group last year to make the last 32 - they now turn their attention back to the Premier League this Sunday. Swansea City will be at the Britannia having had a rest while their hosts played three times, against Spanish giants Valencia twice and Crawley Town in the FA Cup last weekend.
Having gained promotion last season, Swansea’s current mid-table Premier League position, above both Fulham and Stoke on goal difference, has been down largely to their home form. However, they began the month coming from behind to win at West Brom, so Potters boss Tony Pulis may need to accept a point, which would at least end their poor recent run.
Aston Villa had gone into the half time interval at the Sport Direct Arena yesterday on level terms after loanee Robbie Keane had made it 1-1 right at the end of the half. But unlike at Wolves last month, it was the home side that scored the next decisive goal this time.
Villa had capitalised on the momentum after equalising at Chelsea on New Year’s Eve by going on to win that day as well. But on this occasion McLeish’s team left with nothing. Looking at the result from a more positive outlook, it was Villa’s first defeat away from home in the league since playing Spurs when the manager was heavily criticised for his team selection and approach to that fixture.
Yesterday Alex McLeish blamed a shortage of work ethic from his team overall this season, compared with Villa’s opponents Newcastle United. Alluding to the high number of games that his team have drawn this season, rather than go onto win, he said: “They [Newcastle] put the ball in the box and flood it.
“That was the reason for their first goal. I don’t think it’s rocket science. They get results because of a fantastic team work ethic.”
Much to their credit Newcastle United, who finished 12th in the Premier League last season, remain in with a chance of qualifying for Europe, having started off the campaign so well and only faultered since on odd occasions.
Their opponents at the Sport Direct Arena tomorrow are Aston Villa who have mildly better league form on the road this season than at Villa Park, having only won a quarter of their home games while losing just twice away from home. This might be explained in part by fans’ ill-feeling towards the club’s manager, Alex McLeish.
Their midweek game against QPR became their tenth draw in the Premier League this season (Villa pre-McLeish drew 12 throughout 2010-11) although before last week’s comeback from 2-0 down, just a third of their draws this season had come at Villa Park.
For McLeish, who suffered relegation with Villa’s rivals Birmingham City last season on the back (in part) of ten defeats and only two victories in their 18 matches away from St Andrews, the pressure will be off – at least for tomorrow.
Eight draws at home didn’t save Birmingham last season. Although not considered to be in any genuine danger of becoming lured into a relegation scrap, Villa are currently down in 13th place and McLeish’s current club hasn’t won at home in the league now for three months.
They started the weekend in sixth place, three points behind Arsenal. And that gap could be closed later on today should they get the right result at Aston Villa, then Manchester City beat the Gunners. But injury has ended Lucas Leiva’s season prematurely and in Liverpool’s first game without him a couple of weeks ago, Kenny Dalglish’s side suffered their third defeat of the campaign.
Defence is where the Reds have been strongest this season, only conceding 13 times. Meanwhile, Villa who started the weekend seven points outside the top six, won away from home for the first time last weekend, following two defeats (at Man City and Spurs) in seven previous attempts on their travels. So I’m going to predict a low-scoring draw at Villa Park, which I’m quite sure Alex McLeish would happily settle for.