Four games from salvation or devastation – Aston Villa’s Premier League life hangs in the balance.
Still in their hands, their fate revolves around a manager who has put his faith in a youthful side.
One of the seven ever-present Premier League clubs since its birth in 1992, they have been rooted in a constant malaise for three years and Paul Lambert is tasked with banishing the blues.
But Villa have been here before, from a position of strength – just missing out on the Champions League with a raft of internationals in 2010 – to staring the Championship in the face.
Just five years after winning the European Cup they were last relegated from the top flight – the old First Division – in 1986-1987.
They finished bottom when Billy McNeill failed to save them after Graham Turner’s sacking following a 6-0 defeat to Nottingham Forest in September 1986.
McNeill was himself dismissed four days after relegation was confirmed – a 2-1 defeat to Arsenal – in May and Graham Taylor took the reins to guide Villa back to the top flight at the first attempt.
Tony Daley, Martin Keown, Nigel Spink and an aging Andy Gray were all part of the squad which won just eight games, earning 36 points.
A run of six matches without a goal in March and April 1987 – including a 5-0 defeat at Southampton – contributed to their downfall.
They scored just 45 goals that year and shipped 79 to finish with a goal difference of minus 34 – something the class of 2013 must fear.
Villa’s record of minus 27 – four worse than third-from-bottom Wigan’s before the weekend – is crucial and a pivotal figure on which Villa’s Premier League future could hang.
Reading were the last team relegated on goal difference after Fulham’s miraculous escape in 2007-08.
Sheffield United in 2007 and Crystal Palace in 1993 – despite accumulating 49 points – also dropped out of the Premier League via the same route to hand reprieves to Wigan and Oldham respectively.
Lambert’s youth policy was always a calculated gamble as Villa rein in the spending which took them to the brink of the top four.
Putting his faith in so many developing players was a risk and their inexperience has contributed to the claret and blues shipping 63 goals so far.
Nathan Baker, Ciaran Clark and Fabian Delph have suffered costly slip-ups.
Without a clean sheet since December – 23 games – they have kept just four shutouts this season, as opposed to eight in 1986-87.
The 15 goals conceded in just three games over Christmas – including an 8-0 demolition at Chelsea – could yet prove their undoing.
That 6-0 loss at Forest was the endgame for Turner in 1986 and the heaviest Villa suffered that season.
Next month’s final-day showdown at Wigan is being tipped as the winner-takes-all clash with the Latics master escape artists.
But, should Villa earn enough points, goal difference will not matter. Sunderland’s visit on Monday is the first of a double-header which takes them to Lambert’s former club, and fellow strugglers, Norwich on Saturday.
Win both and survival would be virtually assured – and Villa have come up big when it counts with victories over West Ham, Reading and QPR. It is there where they differ from 26 years ago. Back then, Villa were sleepwalking to relegation with just three wins after Christmas and already rooted in the bottom three at the turn of the year.
Victories over Charlton, Coventry and West Ham merely prolonged the inevitable. A four- game unbeaten run, where they also drew against drop rivals Manchester City and Leicester City – who were also relegated – was as good as it got.
Now though, there is fight and belief. The battle, spearheaded by Christian Benteke’s goals, Brad Guzan’s heroics and Ashley Westwood’s emergence, is there to be won.
It emanates from the manager and his ability to draw every ounce from players who owe him their Premier League lives.
He picked a sub-standard bunch up off their knees at League One Norwich in 2009 – days after his Colchester side destroyed them 7-1 – and took them to the top flight.
No-one can doubt his man-management skills and respect in the dressing room. Players will run through brick walls for him. Respect is given and earned.
Should they survive, expect Villa to thrive. A record TV deal – £60m is guaranteed for the bottom club next year – and the added experience will galvanise them.
Should the unthinkable happen, emulating the immediate response of 1987-88 by bouncing straight back is not guaranteed.
Since 2000-01, just three teams have returned at the first attempt. Albion – in 2004 and 2010 – Newcastle in 2010 and West Ham last season all escaped being stuck in the Championship more than one season.
Charlton, Bolton, Ipswich, Burnley, Watford and Leicester – Leeds and Norwich also dropped into League One – have all suffered prolonged spells in the second tier.
It is a fate Villa can ill afford, one which has loomed large during the last two seasons. But, unlike 1987, it is in their hands.Subscribe to our Newsletter