The VTID: Unai Emery Gets Unpredictable

Unai Emery: Focused on the End Game

By Adam Szreter

One thing you can’t accuse Unai Emery of is being predictable. Maybe in his answers to inane questions at pre-match press conferences, but definitely not in team selections. I’ve lost count of the number of times this season, when I’ve looked at what we have left to choose from after injuries and suspensions and thought the team pretty much picked itself, only to find that I was – well – wrong.

Wednesday night was a case in point. Before we found out that Watkins wasn’t going to play, the dummies among us, including myself, would have confidently named 10 certain starters, with the last place up for grabs between Duran, Rogers, Zaniolo, Lenglet and Tim (as Unai calls him, so I think I will too). As it was, we ended up with all five of them starting!

Watkins’ injury may just have persuaded Emery to scrap any plans he might have had to field his strongest available XI and to take the free hit option instead, and I for one don’t blame him. I’ve heard more than one player in interviews this season saying how Emery tells them before a game exactly how it’s all going to pan out, and maybe this time he just didn’t see anything but misery in his crystal ball.

A few years ago, I was watching City do yet another annihilation job on us with my young son, who turned to me at half-time, when we were already 3-0 down, and said: “Daddy, do I have to be an Aston Villa fan?” The Darren Bent debut match aside, in those years, we really didn’t seem to have any chance against them. But I’d say both games against City this season have told a different story: that of an Aston Villa team that can now beat them, or at least make them play to the very best of their ability to beat us.

And whilst I wouldn’t say that any of the five outfield players called in to the team was an unqualified success at the Etihad, suddenly it feels as though the squad of players who can now be trusted to start a game has swelled significantly, and just at the right time of the season. On the evidence of Wednesday night we can even now include Olsen in that number, though sadly not the affable Chambers who, as someone pointed out in MOMS Match Club, was comfortably the worst player on the pitch when he came on.

I’ll leave others to lynch Zaniolo and instead restrict myself to the thought that maybe – just maybe – the difference between a loan player and your own player is that your own player is prepared to put his knackers on the line, while a loan player might feel there’s a limit to what he’s prepared to sacrifice, and wedding tackle just isn’t part of the deal.

Personally, I hope he’ll get the chance to atone because, that incident aside, I think we’ve all seen that his attitude and his game (now passing to other players) have shown distinct signs of improvement lately. And he even managed to avoid a yellow card. He’s scored three vital goals this season, that have directly both secured league points and helped Villa avoid the play-off knockout round in the Europa Conference League – there still maybe more vital goals to come from him.

So despite being on the wrong end of a 4-1 scoreline, I’m feeling more optimistic about our Champions League chances than I have for a good while (the madcap Chelsea vs United result helped). That may change if things get ugly at the Emirates a week on Sunday, which may well be the case given that the Arsenal game falls between the two Lille fixtures, and although the Gunners are facing Bayern Munich themselves, they’ll have had extra days’ rest. I can feel another Emery free hit coming there.

In any case, as we all know, fifth place may well be enough for us to get into the Champions League. Villans will certainly have a better idea of this situation after the European quarter-finals over the next week or so.

Villa, can of course help their own cause by progressing into the semi-finals of the Europa Conference League to boost England’s co-efficient points. A bigger influence on the possibility of a fifth Premier League spot will come from the results of the two England vs Germany team ties – the aforementioned Arsenal vs Bayern tie, and West Ham vs Bayer Leverkusen in the Europa League.

Both ties are tough to call, although Leverkusen will start as favourites against the Hammers. England will perhaps need at least one of their teams through to keep the fifth spot dream alive. If West Ham make it and they went on to lift the trophy, there’s a big chance there could be six English teams in the Champions League season, as the Europa League winners are rewarded with a Champions League spot the following season too.

At the moment, Emery’s focus will be on finishing fourth. With United’s capitulation in Fergie time against Chelsea, it now seems increasingly like a two-horse race with Spurs.


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