Matt Maher: Whisper it, but Europe is within Aston Villa striking distance

Aston Villa's Ashley Young during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham.  Picture date: Monday December 26, 2022..
Aston Villa’s Ashley Young during the Premier League match at Villa Park, Birmingham. Picture date: Monday December 26, 2022..

And yet Ashley Young’s assertion Villa should be aiming for Europe over the second half of the season was generally met by a mood of caution from a fanbase desperately trying not to get carried away and risk disappointment at another false dawn.

Young’s comments, delivered barely half-an-hour after he had left the pitch following last Saturday’s 1-0 win at Southampton, merely echoed his sentiments since returning to the club 18 months ago.

The 37-year-old was involved in three European campaigns during his first stint at Villa Park, including a run to the last-32 of the Europa League. It is where he sees the club and where supporters see it too.

Recent history, however, has taught the latter to be wary. Villa looked all set to kick on and challenge for European football after finishing 11th two seasons ago but have since changed manager twice while flirting with the relegation zone.

The Premier League is unrelenting and while a return of five wins from Unai Emery’s first seven matches in charge represents an excellent start, it is just a start. For the majority of supporters, you suspect, mention of the “E” word feels a little premature.

On the other hand, one glance at the Premier League table makes you wonder whether opportunity knocks, not only for Villa but several other clubs too? Emery’s quick impact since replacing Steven Gerrard has seen them climb to 11th, just three points adrift of sixth-placed Brighton, themselves sitting in a position no-one would have expected at the start of the season, even less so when their head coach was poached by Chelsea barely a month in.

The tightness of the standings is almost unprecedented at this stage of a campaign. Indeed, three points is the narrowest gap between sixth and 11th place 20 matches in since at least the 2003-04 season, which is as far back as this writer could be bothered to go in order to prove his point. For a little more perspective, Villa last sat 11th after 20 matches in the 2013-14 Premier League campaign, when they were 14 points behind sixth-placed Tottenham.

Make no mistake, to see the table as it currently stands in January is rare. More often than not, the so-called Big Six have already jumped clear from the chasing pack at this stage.

The assumption is Chelsea and Liverpool, those two members of the established elite who are experiencing something of a “transitional” phase, will eventually click into gear and power away from the rest, normal order restored.

True, it would be a surprise if the amount Chelsea have spent – ​​and are continuing to spend – did not bear fruit in the end. Money usually talks eventually. For all that Liverpool have looked in need of a refresh for much of the campaign, they still have no shortage of quality. The smart money would be on both clubs outlasting the pretenders.

But then again, you can never be sure. There has been enough about this Premier League season already to suggest it might be different. Just maybe this is a rare chance for the likes of Brighton or Brentford or possibly even Fulham and yes, Villa, to pull off the unexpected?

After all, who back in August would have predicted Arsenal would be heading into February with a five points lead at the top over Manchester City, the champions who having added Erling Haaland to solve their only perceived weakness were expected to have the title sown up by April?

And surely only the most optimistic of Newcastle supporters would have seen their club sitting third after 20 matches, with only one defeat on their record? The Magpies, have not conceded a goal in their last six league games, may take some dislodging.

A league which is often easy to predict, at least when it comes to the top half is – whisper it – suddenly rather unpredictable.

The view of Villa’s season is clouded by their rotten start. Their current record of played eight, drawn four and lost eight is the definition of being middle of the pack, yet the trend is upward and the domestic season younger than it feels due to the World Cup break. Almost half a campaign is left to play and with Villa facing five of the nine teams below them prior to the March international break, the chance to set up an exciting run-in at least is undeniably there.

Other players will not speak so freely about Europe as Young. Tyrone Mings, talking after the win over Leeds earlier this month, noted rather sagely how looking more than one match ahead is often a good way to trip up. The message from Emery is very much one step at a time and while the club have already shown their willingness to enter the transfer market this month, a truly mega money purchase is only likely if they can land one of their prime targets.

That is sensible and with the threat of relegation having so rapidly evaporated, the savviest way to build for the long-term.

All the same, it doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be alert to unexpected opportunities which may open up, for them and others, in this most unusual of seasons.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *