Wigan v Aston Villa preview
If Aston Villa are to make a sustained challenge for promotion over the second half of the season, the next few weeks must surely be their launchpad.
After two months when their fixture list read like a who’s-who of Championship contenders, the schedule is about to soften significantly.
Of their next four opponents, three currently sit in the bottom five, starting with tomorrow’s trip to face a Wigan outfit winless since November and beaten in six of their last seven.
Villa boss Dean Smith is not the type to take anything for granted, particularly when his own side have won just one of the last six.
But even he yesterday had to acknowledge the opportunity which now presents itself, particularly on a weekend when eight of the nine teams above 10th-placed Villa face each other.
“We have a run of games this month where we are playing teams below us, whereas probably the last 10 matches have been teams above us or around us,” said Smith.
“If we can go and get a win, we will catch up on people above us. We will take it one game at a time and see where we can go. We are thoroughly looking forward to the run-in.”
For Villa, the Christmas and New Year period can be looked back on as a case of what might have been.
Ultimately, a haul of five points from four games fell below expectations and Smith knows better will be required to stand any chance of erasing the five-point gap which now exists to the top six.
“We’ve not won since Boxing Day and the incentive is just to get back on the winning trail,” he said.
“We have missed a few chances in the last few games. We are certainly a team that is hard to beat.
“We have been working on our defensive organisation because I believe if we make it difficult for the opposition to score there are enough goals in this team to cause problems.”
New signing Kortney Hause is likely to feature in the squad at the DW Stadium, while goalkeeper Lovre Kalinic will make his league bow.
One man who could miss out, however, is Henri Lansbury. A bright cameo appearance off the bench in last week’s FA Cup defeat to Swansea had led to talk the midfielder might be poised for a rare Championship start.
But the injury issues which have continually dogged his two years at Villa may yet again cost him, with a tight hamstring putting his participation in doubt.
Jack Grealish is not expected back until next month, though the 23-year-old did step up his recovery this week by spending three days warm weather training in Dubai.
Grealish was accompanied on the trip to the Middle East by Villa physio Alan Smith and the boss said: “He’s been out there doing rehab.
“The warm weather certainly helps the recovery period. The blood flows a little bit quicker than it does when it’s colder.”