Aston Villa planning to pile misery on Sunderland
You won’t find many regular observers of the Championship disagreeing with Steve Bruce’s assertion the division contains no easy games.
Even so, it would be fair to say anything less than a win at Sunderland tonight would represent a serious disappointment for a Villa team eager to keep pace with their promotion rivals.
Only the merest glance at the statistics is required to see why Villa go into the game as firm favourites. They arrive at the Stadium of Light having won more league games in the last eight weeks than the hosts have all season.
Villa are four points from the automatic promotion places. Sunderland are the same margin from safety, sat rock bottom of the table, having tasted victory just twice on their own turf this term.
In Lewis Grabban, Villa also possess the player who comfortably remains the Black Cats’ top scorer, more than two months after he left the club.
The 30-year-old scored 12 goals in just 19 appearances during a first half of the campaign spent on loan on Wearside from Bournemouth. Since joining Villa until the end of the season on transfer deadline day, Grabban has picked up where he left off, netting twice in his first four appearances.
Yet the circumstances of his departure from Sunderland at the start of January remains a bone of contention.
Grabban has always refuted the claim – again repeated this week by Black Cats boss Chris Coleman – that he asked for his loan deal in the north-east, which was initially meant to be for the whole season, to be cut short.
“I was playing every week and scoring, why would I want to leave?” he said last month, in his first interview after joining Villa.
Coleman and Sunderland, nevertheless, are sticking to their own version of events.
“Lewis never came to me but went to see our chief executive,” said Coleman yesterday.
“As we understood it he cancelled his accommodation and went to see our chief executive.
“I didn’t have a problem because Lewis has to look after Lewis. If he has opportunities elsewhere, fair enough.
“But he never came to see me. It is gone, it is finished. The players who are here now are the ones who want to be here.
“I’m not worried about Lewis Grabban, I’m more worried about us performing. Villa have a host of talent. I am not worried about one player, I am more worried about us.”
Whatever the truth, Grabban’s involvement adds another layer of spice to a game between two clubs whose recent histories have seen them tread eerily similar paths.
Villa supporters will see much of their own club’s decline in that of the Black Cats, which comes complete with an absentee American owner and increasing supporter apathy. The difference is that Villa’s relegation was immediately followed by a takeover which helped restore a sense of direction and means that, two years on, they are pushing for a return to the top flight.
Sunderland, meanwhile, are still sliding.
“It’s not been a rollercoaster ride. It’s been bumpier than that,” said Coleman, whose first game in charge was a 2-1 defeat at Villa Park last November.
“It’s a huge test, but one we can overcome.”