Aston Villa’s Quest for European Football
After Aston Villa’s 2-0 win against Nottingham Forest, the Premier League table had a familiar look about it. Villa were sixth, a place they had finished six times within 12 seasons between 1998/99 and 2009/10. While supporters may have taken it for granted back then, after a poor last decade, it sure feels good to be back.
With only eight games left to the season, Villa enter the business end of it fully entrenched in the battle for European places. Villa would certainly love to take their current position and claim a Europa League spot, but how realistic is that?
The West London duo of Chelsea and Fulham seems to have been burnt off due to Villa’s nine-point haul in the past week (both are now eight points adrift), so Villa should, at the very least, finish with their first top-half Premier League finish since the 2010/11 season.
The Concern of the Remaining Fixtures
The main obstacle to Europe is that in their final eight games, Villa will have to play seven of the current top 10 – the three teams immediately above them and the four immediately below them (plus, a tricky away derby against Wolves).
When you take into account Villa’s remaining opponents’ PPG (Points Per Game), Villa currently have the toughest run-in of every Premier League team, bar Chelsea, who’s opponents also have a PPG of 1.71.
To give you some context, the PPG of Villa’s opponents in the games they’ve played so far this season is 1.29, so their remaining fixtures are statistically 33% harder on average than the matches they’ve already played.
When you look at Villa’s next four games, they are the hardest next four of any Premier League team, with a PPG of 1.80. Three of them (Newcastle, Brentford and Manchester United) according to the PPG in the table above, are Villa’s toughest remaining fixtures, so we’ll certainly know how Villa’s chances of Europe stand by the end of this month.
The fact that Chelsea also has a difficult run-in is good news and should keep them out of Europe (unless they win the Champions League). Brentford, too, four points adrift of Villa, have a difficult enough run-in (1.46 PPG), which includes away trips to Liverpool, Spurs, and Chelsea, and a home tie against Manchester City, making Villa confident that they should finish above them too.
Main Threats to Europe
The most serious threats to Villa are the two teams currently immediately below them, who both have games in hand and vastly superior goal differences. Brighton are one point behind in 7th with two games-in-hand, while Liverpool are three points behind in 8th, with a game-in-hand.
Liverpool have one of the easiest run-ins, with a remaining opponents’ PPG of just 1.07. Plus, they have the advantage of hosting Villa at Anfield, where they’ve only lost once this season.
At this stage, you’d have to favour Liverpool to ultimately finish higher than Villa.
So what about the threat of Brighton? The south coast team have had an excellent season and their finish could be the key to Villa’s European ambition. The two face off at Villa Park on the last day of the season, and there is real potential for this game to offer up a ‘winner takes all’ climax.
Brighton may have games in hand, but they now face the serious issue of fixture congestion. They will have have to play three more games than Villa in the space of the final six weeks of the season.
Not only do they still have to schedule two of their toughest league tests of the season – Newcastle away and Manchester City at home – but they have an FA Cup semi-final tie against Manchester United to play too. They also have to face United in the league, with a trip to Arsenal shortly after.
It’s going to be seriously tough for them to mentally maintain a level in this period for them to consistently take points off the best teams in the league.
If Villa can post steady form and pick up a reasonable amount of points, Brighton may struggle to still be relevant when it comes to their closing season clash.
So, based on the above, are Villa finishing 7th?
Well, there’s a train of thought that Villa can still hunt down Spurs. With the inconsistent North London team currently six points ahead, Villa would certainly need to beat them when they play at Villa Park, for starters. Then there’s the hope that Spurs could come unstuck in clashes away to Newcastle and Liverpool, and when they host Manchester United. The rest of their fixtures are very winnable though, so it maybe a bit of a long shot for Villa.
In Villa’s favour in their quest for a European place is their form and momentum since Unai Emery took over, that only Arsenal and Manchester City can better during the period. Under Emery, in terms of PPG, Villa are 1.78 at home, while a very impressive 2.38 away from home.
It could be argued that in recent weeks, Villa’s opponents have been very beatable. After all, Leicester City are now winless in eight games and Forest in nine. Even Chelsea now haven’t won in four league matches.
Villa’s forthcoming fixtures certainly now go up a level, starting with the weekend clash against Newcastle. They could do with the return of the likes of Boubacar Kamara, Matty Cash, Leon Bailey and Philippe Coutinho, sooner rather than later, and not lose anyone else.
The remainder of the season is certainly an exciting challenge, with a European place very much on the table.