28 November 2009 ~ Aston Villa scored five goals in their last home match while Spurs rattled in nine last week against Wigan. Today's fixture between the two sides is likely to involve four of the strikers, Crouch, Defoe, Heskey and Agbonlahor, who will be contesting places in England's 2010 World Cup squad. With expectations duly ramped up, there's every likelihood of it being an attritional low-scoring draw broken up with petty fouls, at least one of which will prompt a near brawl matched by a testy exchange at the edge of the managers' technical areas.
Even if the home side fail to pick up three points, that is unlikely to produce the cascade of booing that Villa received after their first home game of the season. A deserved defeat to Wigan in August seemed to endorse the concerns that had built up among Villa fans over the club's lack of transfer activity. With Villa dropping out of the Champions League places in the second half of last season it was obvious Gareth Barry would leave (even if his destination raised eyebrows at the time) and the severity of Martin Laursen’s injuries that led to his retirement would have been known within the club.
But Martin O’Neill left it late, as he always does, and the major signings that were eventually made – Richard Dunne, James Collins and Stephen Warnock – settled in well as the team recovered from a sluggish start, including an early elimination from Europe, to resume their familiar place in the top six. Whether that could yet become a place in the top four is open to question but Liverpool's erratic form continues to offer encouragement to the Champions League pretenders: finishing fourth this season is likely to require a lot less than the 72 points amassed by Arsenal in 2008-09.
Pundits had expected Manchester City to provide the strongest challenge to the cosy cartel at the top. But while City are well placed, their expensively constructed defence looks as flimsy as it did under Kevin Keegan four years ago. Instead it is Villa's opponents today, Spurs, who are firmly encamped in fourth spot.
Last season Harry Redknapp never wasted an opportunity to point out how many points the team had – two from eight games – when he arrived from Portsmouth. Nonetheless, he deserved a fair proportion of the praise lavished on him by his many friends in the football media for the revival he brought about – having reached the top half of the table for the first time in early April, Spurs finished eighth.
Taciturn in his dealings with the press, Martin O'Neill can seem like the polar opposite to the ebullient Redknapp, who has a good record against him in recent games – the remodelled Spurs won the same fixture in March and Redknapp's Portsmouth did the double over Villa in 2007-08. If Liverpool don’t manage to sort themselves out, today’s game could yet help determine who will be playing a Champions League qualifier next summer. Steve Chadwick