Win at Everton tomorrow and Steven Gerrard’s team could go into the winter break in the top half of the Premier League table.
A draw, or defeat, would potentially leave them sitting in the bottom six before the campaign resumes at home to Leeds on February 9. For all the positives evident in recent matches, Villa are without a win in four and Gerrard has not shied away from the need to turn encouraging performances into results.
“We want to move now, we don’t want to wait,” said Gerrard, when explaining how the signings of Lucas Digne and Philippe Coutinho underlined the club’s lofty ambitions. Their arrivals undoubtedly lifted the mood and last weekend’s thrilling comeback against Manchester United – where Coutinho played a significant role – helped maintain the excitement levels.
But Gerrard knows as well as anyone that statement signings must be followed by statement results. Everton might be underachieving, having finished in the top half last season. They might be hopeful of a bounce under the guidance of interim boss Duncan Ferguson. But they are also a team who have lost nine of their last 12 Premier League matches and tomorrow feels like a game Villa, if they have any serious ambition of charging up the table in the next few months, should be looking to win.
Gerrard, who can expect a fiery reception from the Goodison Park crowd, is likely to be forced into one change with Ezri Konsa still struggling with the hip injury sustained last week. Kortney Hause is ready to step into the breach in the heart of defence, while the return of John McGinn into midfield following suspension is another straightforward call for the Villa boss.
More tricky is whether to hand Coutinho a first start. The 29-year-old’s substitute cameo against United could hardly have gone better, though whether he is fit enough to start in the Premier League remains unclear.
Coutinho started only five matches for Barcelona during the first half of the season and had been training away from the first-team group before making his switch to the Midlands. Villa’s intention is to build his match-fitness steadily and it may be Gerrard determines he is more useful coming off the bench for now.
“We’ll analyse him going into the next game,” said the boss. “What he gave me from the bench last week was all I could have wanted.
“The plan was always for him to have a short cameo, whether it be 15, 20 or 25 minutes. There was no plan for him to play more than that. We will top up his fitness in a safe way.
“It will only be a matter of time before he is looking even better and physically stronger.”
While Coutinho will look to continue his impressive start, it is Villa’s other big January signing who will receive the most pre-match attention. Lucas Digne faces Everton just nine days after completing a £25million move to the visitors.