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Can Villa catch third-placed Blades and negotiate the playoffs?

Norwich, Leeds, Sheffield United, Aston Villa… Fallen founders of the Premier League are very well represented in the upper echelons of the Championship right now, but the current form table puts a sharp focus on the latter club. Dean Smith’s men have their eye on that all-important playoff spot, charging to an eighth successive win to send a message to their promotion-chasing competition.

Though it may not always pay dividends, their pragmatism is justified. The present-day crop of Villans know that the parachute payments, received by the club since its Premier League relegation in May 2016, will stop in 2019/20.

With a failure to gain promotion in that three-season window comes extra difficulties in the transfer market, and the all-or-nothing approach the club now need is reflected within several positive trends, which have emerged in Villa’s results of late.

Time of Reckoning Close at Hand

Following their 2-1 home win against Bristol City on Saturday, Villa have now won eight Championship games on the spin.

All but one has seen Villa score multiple goals, and come from behind to win on no less than three occasions within this winning run. The Villans’ home form has been a vital asset of late too, with the start of spring at our doorstep, Villa have produced massive wins over potential playoff rivals Derby (4-0) and Middlesbrough (3-0).

Early goals have also been a regular fixture at Villa Park, showing in no uncertain terms that the fallen giants are eager to put visitors to the sword – even if such an approach occasionally backfires.

The slightly reckless attitude championed by coach Smith has ensured that ten of the last eleven fixtures at Villa Park have seen a goal before half-time, and prior to the Bristol City game, no other Championship ground had witnessed more league goals.

Perhaps more importantly, positive patterns can also be observed in Villa’s away form. Most notably, the Villans’ 2-1 win at Rotherham on April 10th broke new ground, marking the club’s first run of four successive Championship away wins in its current second-tier stay.

The three wins that preceded the Rotherham victory also saw Villa score inside the final half-hour of play, while the win at Rotherham itself saw Villa come from behind to win for the third time in four away victories.

Fourth-place possible, but out of Villa’s hands

Given that Sheffield United take a ten-point lead over Villa into the final four games, it will take a catastrophic turn of form from the Bramall Lane outfit to give Villa any hope of finishing third.

Indeed, current spread betting outrights for the Championship shows that Sheffield United are still considered to have an outside chance of nicking the title. The prices also heavily imply that the Blades are strong and assured enough to look up rather than down.

Ultimately, Villa’s focus should be on securing at least a fourth-place finish, and the assurance of home advantage in the second leg of the playoffs.

After 42 games, fourth place is occupied by none other than Villa’s midland rivals West Brom, who can net abundantly, but may yet find themselves struggling at times after a recent managerial turnover.

Aston Villa’s strong form can only get them so far, but wins should be forthcoming in the short-term, starting with a Good Friday trip to crisis-ridden Bolton and a home banker against Millwall on Easter Monday. 

Condemned to Elland Road

A home match against Norwich on the last day might also be a good opportunity to score more vital points, with current momentum implying that a relaxed Norwich will have sealed the EFL Championship trophy by that time.

However, it is a trip to Elland Road, to face Leeds on April 28th, that might be the last glimmer of hope of getting a home advantage in the second leg of the playoffs. Villa’s intentions might be turned to thwarting Leeds United’s top-two finish and dragging them into an erratic playoff spot.

Leeds ended the weekend of April 13/14 having won six of their previous eight Championship matches. Furthermore, the Whites’ Saturday evening victory ensured they were on the right track to automatic promotion, boasting 1.64 goals per match this season.

Optimism is on The Horizon  

Just like Villa, West Brom will be looking at three wins out of four as a minimum, with the Baggies entertaining an unpredictable Hull, and then a Rotherham side that could not buy an away win until very recently. Again, barring a miracle, Villa look to travel for the second leg of the playoff semis.

Recent history favours most teams who have enjoyed home advantage in the second leg of a playoff semi-final. Obviously, the most topical example would be Villa’s own defeat to a 3rd-placed Fulham at Wembley in last season’s playoff final, but recent results would at least grant the Villans’ a psychological edge over potential playoff rivals.

Bristol City, Derby and Middlesbrough have all fallen to the wrath of the Villans this calendar year, and a magical ten-minute comeback (from 3-0 down) against Sheffield United at Villa Park in February proves that no team is invincible at this level, with or without home advantage.

Indeed, Villa’s tendency to start strong in matches, and overwhelm Villa Park visitors, means that playing the first leg at home could yet be more friend than foe when the time of reckoning arrives.

This article was brought to you by The Football League Paper. On-sale every Sunday, the newspaper provides extensive coverage for all 72 Football League clubs with news, features and gossip plus comprehensive match reports.
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