As we desperately flick through the final pages of Dean Smith’s book of miracles and magic tricks to find a spell to save our Premier League status, Roy Hodgson’s band of merry men, ex-Villans aplenty, roll into B6 looking to stop a rut of their own.
Despite winning their last three matches before the lockdown, as well as collecting three points against Championship-bound Bournemouth in their first game back, Crystal Palace have lost four games in a row coming into today’s fixture. In fairness, the Eagles (who feature former Villa Park regulars Gary Cahill, Jordan Ayew and Christian Benteke) have faced Liverpool, Leicester City and Chelsea in that aforementioned run of bad form, but they will more than fancy a win today in order to end that streak and finish their generally positive season on a high.
For Villa however, or for myself at least, this was the fixture that has been long singled out as potentially the easiest – or most winnable – tie in our run-in, as we frantically scramble to collect the points needed to pull off what would surely be the greatest of all ‘great escapes’, at this late stage. Whilst results for Watford and West Ham United yesterday didn’t help our cause at all, pulling future away days to Rotherham and Stoke City further over the horizon, a win for the boys in claret and blue later today could be one the results that we need in order to take it to the final day – a do-or die survival clash at the Olympic Stadium, against the Hammers.
But back to today, and in order to find out more about their season as a whole and just how the Selhurst Park faithful see this fixture unfolding from their perspective, we posed some questions to the well-known @HLTCO. Here’s what went down.
HOTH: From winning three in a row before lockdown, to now losing four in a row during Project Restart, what’s caused your change of fortunes since the return of football?
HLTCO: A mixture of safety being assured, European hopes having disappeared, a small squad and Hodgson’s tactical rigidity. I honestly believe that, whilst Roy will always keep you safe from relegation, his training methods are so methodical and repetitive that once the primary job is done, players drop off a tad.
HOTH: Roy Hodgson continues to prove age is but a number, however. If you were to finish mid-table with a couple more wins under your belt, how would you rate your campaign?
HLTCO: Hodgson’s legacy (he’s coming up to 3 years in charge) is a very solid one. His football may not be particularly expansive or exciting but as I said above, he gets the job done. This season in general feels like one of missed opportunity given how close we were to Europa qualification after our last victory but many will urge fans not to lose sight of the bigger picture.
HOTH: Former Villa man Gary Cahill has been so impressive this season for you, giving you a better defensive record than Chelsea, who sit 3rd. Just how good has he been?
HLTCO: A lot of fans (myself included) were worried about Cahill coming in given his age and Chelsea’s reluctance to keep him on board, but this campaign has shown that not being “good enough” for a Champions League hopeful doesn’t mean you’re not good enough for a side sat in mid-table. His leadership, positioning and general reading of the game are exemplary.
HOTH: You also have two former Villans – Jordan Ayew and Christian Benteke – in your attack. How have both of them performed this season and who has been the better player for the Eagles overall?
HLTCO: For me, Jordan Ayew has been our Player of the Year. He’s scored 9 goals and each one has won us a point or three. His work-rate at the head of the side has been incredible and without that amount of running, the role in Hodgson’s set-up wouldn’t work. Benteke‘s season has been something of a redemption, now that he and the fan-base have accepted that he won’t be scoring 10-15 goals, he’s settled into the role of a link-man with genuine enthusiasm and is key to Ayew and the midfield functioning well.
HOTH: We’re big fans of Wilf Zaha, but this season he hasn’t quite been putting up the same numbers as we’ve seen from him in previous campaigns. Why do you think that is?
HLTCO: Similar to the first question, I would imagine it’s a mixture of things. His well documented transfer request last summer may well still be playing on his mind, along with thoughts about potentially moving elsewhere this summer if the opportunity presents itself. Alongside that, he’s got through more defensive work helping Patrick van Aanholt on the left hand side than ever before since August and has been doubled or tripled up on by every team outside of the top six after becoming so easily identifiable as our main threat. It’s a perfect storm.
HOTH: You’re also a supporter of our captain, Jack Grealish – whilst other opposition fans aren’t a lot of the time! What do you like about his game and can you see similarities between him and Zaha?
HLTCO: For me, Grealish everything a supporter should want in a player. He’s homegrown, has huge affection for your club as a genuine supporter, always shows for the ball, doesn’t shy away from the big moment and similar to Zaha, happily takes on the role of the lightning-rod for your team.
The frequency with which Grealish and Zaha are chopped down by the opposition certainly leads to easy comparisons being drawn, with both players looked upon by everyone outside of their club bubbles as the key to success. I don’t think either set of fans blame clubs for targeting them in games, we would do the same, it’s the “diver” tag which provoked consternation.
7. Villa Park (unfortunately for us) has been a welcomed trip for most away sides this season. How do you see the game unfolding this Sunday?
HLTCO: Many Villa fans I’ve spoken to expect Palace to win handily but I can see a home win for sure. As you know, we’re on an ever growing run of consecutive defeats and you need the points more than ever. I’d love us to put in a clinical and professional performance but given what’s at stake for you and not for us, I’m not sure we’ll have anything like enough motivation to stop you.
There can be no doubt then, that there is far more riding on this fixture for those wearing claret and blue, than there is for those in red and blue. But that has been the case for more than a couple of our games since Premier League football returned and as we all know, that doesn’t necessarily translate into points for Villa. It will be a game between two sides struggling towards the bottom of the league’s form table, so whilst the clash may not exude quality and finesse, it is doused heavily in importance and desperation. Here’s hoping that Villa come out on top.
Thanks again to @HLTCO for answering our questions and I implore you to go and give them a follow on Twitter.