THE HALF DECENT FOOTBALL MAGAZINE

West Bromwich Albion v Aston Villa, 5.30pm

19 January ~ So often derbies are dreaded by supporters of the team who should theoretically win, with the opponents positively frothing at the opportunity to topple their nearest rivals. Aston Villa's season to date makes today's match against West Bromwich Albion a difficult derby to gauge. Who are the underdogs, exactly? Which of these teams has nothing to lose? It certainly isn't Villa, for whom every defeat brings closer a relegation increasingly considered inevitable among supporters. Birmingham City's return to the lower end of the Championship has also had an effect.

For those Villa fans in need of an enemy on which to focus, this fixture has become more of a two-sided rivalry than it has been for many years.

The truth is that none of the derby psychology matters one bit to Villa this weekend; there are more pressing matters for Paul Lambert and his ramshackle band. Last Saturday's results, most notably Villa's home defeat to Southampton, dropped them unceremoniously into the bottom three and there is work to be done before they will be able to climb out.

Transfer market inactivity and a string of results as embarrassing as they were damaging have combined to leave a toxic atmosphere around Villa Park. Bluntly, the squad as it stands is most likely not good enough to avoid relegation. Villa's treatment room has been full to bursting this season, and too many of those players have been the closest thing to the feted "experienced players" that Villa sorely lack.

But the time for excuses has passed and Villa's next four months need to be about one simple statistic: points. They will be difficult to come by at The Hawthorns, but they have been difficult elsewhere too. Lambert and his side must begin to find some unexpected wins and draws or Albion's supremacy in the West Midlands will be anything but temporary.

Expectations are low. Villa's youthful line-up may be able to look up to defender Ron Vlaar but the Dutchman will be short of match fitness. Brad Guzan, 28 years of age but only first choice Premier League goalkeeper a few months, is always a vital influence at the back. Elsewhere Villa rely on hard work and youthful exuberance, neither trait being in abundance this season.

The burden falls at the feet of players who could do with a little guidance of their own. A few – Ashley Westwood, Andreas Weimann and Christian Benteke chief among them – look capable of handling themselves well under pressure. But most Villa supporters would want a bit more steel in the side for the relegation battle ahead. Albion away is likely to be one of the trickiest fixtures of the lot. Chris Nee

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