Express & Star

Aston Villa need to see off bogey side to maintain charge

If Villa are to get over the line in the race for Champions League football, then making their home ground a fortress again will likely be imperative.


After winning their first eight Premier League matches of the season at Villa Park, setting a new club record in the process, Unai Emery’s team have won just two of the next six on home turf, suffering defeats in three of the last four.

They now play four of the next six at home and with the two away matches in the sequence at Manchester City and Arsenal, the importance of those visits from Brentford, Bournemouth, Chelsea and first Wolves becomes that bit much clearer, no matter how much improved Villa have been on the road in recent months.

Among the biggest reasons for their success since Emery’s arrival has been an ability to take care of business against the teams they are favoured to beat.

Nottingham Forest remain the only side not part of Emery’s “Big Seven” (that’s the usual Big Six, plus Newcastle) to have beaten Villa in the league this term, while closer scrutiny of recent home form reveals those defeats have come against Newcastle, Manchester United and Tottenham. Flip the statistics another way and Sheffield United are the only team from outside Emery’s elite to have avoided defeat at Villa Park.

The trouble is Wolves stand out as an exception to the theory Villa typically win the matches they’re supposed to. Not only are tomorrow’s visitors the only top flight team other than Liverpool that Villa haven’t beaten since Emery took charge, they are the only English team the Spaniard has ever faced without tasting victory, his record in six matches against Wolves reading two draws and four defeats.

This is a fixture in which Wolves have recently held the upper hand, winning five out of nine meetings since Villa were promoted back to the Premier League in 2019, suffering only one defeat.

For all these reasons, a win for Villa tomorrow at the start of a seven-week run-in would feel that bit much bigger than normal. Just as when they hosted Burnley on the final weekend of December, Emery’s men are also aiming to avoid going three matches without a win for the first time in the campaign.

The 1-1 draw at West Ham last time out means fourth-placed Villa hold a three-point advantage over Tottenham and a nine-point buffer over Manchester United, though both of their rivals have a game in hand.

Emery’s decision to grant those players not on international duty a full week off training was an acknowledgement of how taxing the upcoming period will be. Tomorrow’s match is the first of seven in 22 days for a squad which has stood up well to a series of injuries. Right-back Matty Cash, who sustained a hamstring injury playing for Poland last week, is the latest player to be sidelined.

Youri Tielemans, fresh from an excellent performance for Belgium against England, will again deputise for the suspended John McGinn while Emery’s biggest selection dilemma is filling the gap left by Jacob Ramsey, with the latter unlikely to be ready to start. Nicolo Zaniolo and Moussa Diaby, who combined for the equaliser at West Ham, are both in contention to start with Morgan Rogers another option.

There could also be a change at left-back, with Lucas Digne among those who impressed off the bench at the London Stadium. The 30-year-old, a key player over the first half of the season, has started only once in the league since suffering a hamstring injury in a 3-2 defeat at Manchester United on Boxing Day.