HEROES AND VILLANS
Aston Villa are a grand old club. One of the 12 founder members of the Football League, they have always had that vibe, a sheepskin coat of a club in a league full of trendy anoraks. The magnificent Villa Park – with its brick facade, Holte End, wood-panelled innards and a grandeur befitting many an FA Cup semi-final – has seen it all in its 126-year history. And in the not-too-distant past, Villa have been champions of England, champions of Europe. More recently, they have been relegated, promoted and a bit average. Villa fans have long dreamt of ending their near-30-year major trophy hiatus (no, we’re not counting the 2001 Intertoto Cup) but nobody thought that it could be the Premier League that ends the drought. The size of a trophy cabinet does not maketh a club (just ask Newcastle), but it certainly helps.
If “Aston Villa: title contenders” sounds a little strange, well, that’s because it is. But the facts are thus: Villa have won 10 of their 15 league matches this season: the most victories for them at this stage of a league campaign since 1980-81 – the last time they won the title. They are four points off the top and could close the gap to a single point this weekend when they host leaders Arsenal at Villa Park, which we are contractually obliged to label as a “fortress”: the Birmingham club have won their last 14 home league games, equalling a club record stretching back to 1903.
In case you have been living under a rock, Villa are on a bit of a roll at the moment. Unai Emery has now won 31 of his first 50 games in charge, two more than Pep Guardiola managed in his first 50 in charge of Manchester City, who were given a shoeing at Villa Park on Wednesday. Guardiola’s sides are not regularly battered but this was an absolute hiding of a 1-0. Leon Bailey got a rather scrappy winner, but it could have easily been 4-0. Villa had 20 more shots than City in their win (22 for, two against), the biggest margin a Guardiola team has been out-gunned by in 535 league matches. Even with the considerable absences of Rodri (suspended) and Kevin De Bruyne (hamstring twang), this was a total victory.
Emi Martínez is arguably the best goalkeeper in the world right now. Super John McGinn isn’t just the owner of the Premier League’s best celebration but also one of the best left foots in the business. Ollie Watkins is the league’s most in-form striker and just a Harry Kane knee-knack away from spearheading England’s attack at Euro 2024. Recruitment has been key, with a combination of bargains and money well spent. Youri Tielemens and Boubacar Kamara have arrived on free transfers, while nobody is now questioning the sizeable fees for Moussa Diaby and Pau Torres, among others. But it is Emery and his coaching that has underpinned Villa’s rise. This has been an evolution, not a complete revolution – six of the players that started against City also featured in Steven Gerrard’s starting XI in his final match as manager 14 months ago. Now Villa have an elite manager, an elite squad and all the momentum of our weird uncle cascading down the ice sculpture at the annual Big Website Christmas bash. If Mikel Arteta thought Arsenal’s trip to Luton was tricky, then he’s got quite the job to beat his predecessor on Saturday.
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QUOTE OF THE DAY
“It was a very sad evening for us. The fact is that expectations are high, hence the boos. But the fact is the fans have been spoiled here in recent times, they’re used to seeing us do very well at home and get good results and this year we’ve not been able to do that. I hope they have enough empathy to stick with us when times are tough” – Roy Hodgson chooses some words that are unlikely to have placated those Crystal Palace fans calling for his head after a chastening 2-0 home defeat by Bournemouth.
Re: Jimmy O’Brien’s email about being a certain number of points clear (yesterday’s Football Daily letters), I congratulate him on introducing me to a new piece of pedantry which will now spark every time I hear that someone is ‘two points clear’. I have a similar problem with a phrase used, usually at the end of a season when goal difference comes into play, that a team needs to beat their opposition ‘by two clear goals’. What is the difference between beating a team by two goals and beating them by two clear goals? What makes them clear?” – Brendan Mac Carron.
I would go further and ask that lexicographical authorities impose the harshest allowable penalties for any usage of a phrase which is clear some way ‘clear’ and ‘adrift’ of acceptable English: I refer of course to the utter horror of being one or more goals ‘to the good’. Just thought I’d get this off my chest before going to a Christmas party later, after which I will presumably be several pints of Tin ‘to the smashed’” – Tim Clarke.
What a blast from the past in Memory Lane (yesterday’s full email edition) – yes, I know that’s the point – with Pat Nevin showing off his best Gregory’s Girl fashion choices. Did everyone from Scotland then have to have the hat and the flicked fringe or was it just the ones we all liked best?” – Colin Reed (and others).
Never mind Pat Nevin. When I think of pure rizz on a park bench, I always think of Wilson and Glendenning” – Jim Hearson.
Maybe rizz is what VAR and referees are missing? A little bit of charisma. None of today’s current crop, bar possibly Michael Oliver, quite carry the rizz as Pierluigi Collina did. Those bug-like eyes, the death stare, followed by a wry smile, Collina was at the same time your worst enemy and best friend. VAR certainly is creating enemies, time to make some friends with a little bit of rizz” – Stephen Jackson.
Send any letters to firstname.lastname@example.org. Today’s letter o’ the day winner is … Jim Hearson, who gets a copy of Pretty Polly: The History of the Football Shirt, published by Pitch Publishing. Visit their brilliant football book store here.
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