Second meeting between two teams in a week at Villa Park
7 March ~ Assuming Aston Villa want to progress in the FA Cup, a home quarter-final against West Bromwich Albion was probably what they wanted. They would have been keen not to face Manchester United, Arsenal or Liverpool and perhaps keener still to avoid a return meeting with Bradford City.
Albion’s most optimistic fans, meanwhile, were looking forward to inflicting back-to-back home defeats on their nearest neighbours. That hope was thwarted by an improved Villa performance in Tuesday night’s league game. Now the visitors will hope that one of football’s truisms will apply after all – that if two teams play each other twice in a few days in different competitions, the results are never the same.
In any case, with their side still eight points clear of the Premier League relegation zone, many Albion supporters will accept the league defeat if the club manage to reach their second FA Cup semi-final in 33 years. Until Tuesday, this season’s run in the competition seemed to be playing its part in transforming league form. It has also been enjoyable on its own terms.
The 4-0 fifth-round win over West Ham saw the best performance so far of Tony Pulis’s spell in charge, while demand for tickets for the fourth-round tie at Birmingham caused the club’s online system to crash. And there will be 6,500 visiting fans at Villa on Saturday, more than double the number who travelled on Tuesday.
Pulis himself is an interesting figure where these games are concerned. For all his pragmatism and seeming devotion to maintaining league status at any cost, he professes great affection for the FA Cup, and clearly relished the experience of reaching the final with Stoke in 2011.
There is at least the possibility that his Albion side will play with more freedom than he usually allows in league away matches. Perhaps he will even risk an attacking full-back, with many fans calling for the return of Sebastien Pocognoli. The indications are also that he would like to start with midfielders Callum McManaman and Stéphane Sessègnon, both of whom are more attacking by instinct than any of the quartet fielded on Tuesday.
There are always reasons not to get too hopeful of course. McManaman and Sessègnon may not play after all due to a foot injury and "personal problems" respectively. Meanwhile, Victor Anichebe, Saido Berahino and Brown Ideye might have scored ten goals between them in the three previous FA Cup rounds, but none is fully fit. Anichebe has been out for a month, while Berahino and Ideye both struggled through Tuesday’s game having taken knocks during last Saturday’s win over Southampton.
Then there are memories of 1998, the last time Albion visited Villa Park for a cup tie. As with this game, there was higher demand for tickets than the club could satisfy and genuine hope of an away win. The reality was a 4-0 hammering. Albion have certainly improved since then. Hopefully they will rise to the challenge Villa coach Tim Sherwood rather provocatively issued after Tuesday’s game and improve on that performance too. James Baxter