Sunderland return to the Stadium of Light needing to maintain a level of performance to suggest relegation may be avoided. Tonight’s showingneeds to generate at least a point if not, ideally, all three. This will be a huge task against one of the Championship’s best sides, who have lost only once since Boxing Day.
Following their defeat at Brentford, Villa went on a run of seven wins from seven games, recording victories against Middlesbrough, Bristol City, Nottingham Forest, Barnsley, Sheffield United, Burton Albion and Birmingham City. They came unstuck during a defeat at Fulham and a draw against Preston before returning to winning ways at the end of February by beating Sheffield Wednesday at Hillsborough.
24 points from a possible 30 is a great return and is why Villa sit at the top of the play-off places on 63 points. During the same period, we picked up only 9 points.
There are some links between the two sides that probably don’t need spelling out.
Steve Bruce - who has arguably been the most successful manager during the Ellis Short reign as Sunderland owner - is the man in the away dugout this evening. He took charge in October 2016, following their relegation from the Premier League, and steadied the ship by guiding them to 13th place last season.
Conor Hourihane is a fixture in the Villa midfield, but began his career in the Sunderland youth team having been signed by Roy Keane. Hourihane then followed the current Republic of Ireland assistant to Ipswich Town, although he failed to make an appearance for the Portman Road side. Instead, he made his way to Villa via Plymouth and Barnsley, where he made over 100 appearances for both clubs.
There’ll be a straight shootout between former Sunderland men Alan Hutton and Ahmed Elmohamady for the Villa right-back slot - though it’s entirely possible that both could feature as the former has played recently on the left.
Finally, to Lewis Grabban. The striker Simon Grayson signed on-loan last summer who scored 12 goals from 18 starts for Sunderland returned to Bournemouth in the January window. His parent club were unable to sell the striker, instead agreeing upon another loan deal with Villa.
Grabban came on to score in the draw at Preston and started his first game for the Villans in the win at Hillsborough, where he scored the first of their four goals. Two goals in two games before we rock up - what timing!
Villa away was Chris Coleman’s first game in charge, of course, and tonight will be a crucial fixture in the quest to claw our way to safety. The players have shown a bit of fight and togetherness in the last three games, but we need to turn those performances into points.
The Sunderland boss yesterday highlighted in his press conference the desire that now exists in the dressing room;
I think the last three performances, you’re looking at a team that are fighting for each other, having a go. Sunderland’s probably not for everyone, it’s not easy, especially where we are.
These boys want to be here and these are the boys that are going to keep us up.
But, of course, we need the win, we need three points. Unless we win some games, it doesn’t really matter what the opposition are doing above us because they’re above us anyway. They’re 3 or 4 points away from us anyway, so we’ve got to win our games.
In terms of personnel to go out and bag that win, Coleman has no real injury concerns. The option of naming an unchanged side is there, but equally one or two tweaks may come into his mind. If Joel Asoro has fully recovered from the knock sustained against Boro, will his pace and trickery make him a viable option up to start front? Is it time that we started Jonny Williams in a big game? These are questions for Coleman as he seeks to counter a very good Villa side.
One thing that stood out from yesterday's press conference was Coleman’s insistence that we should worry simply worry about ourselves. You can read for yourself his comments about Grabban and Bruce, but his comments about our team were telling;
Our biggest obstacle is us, it’s us. Getting over psychological barriers, home or away it doesn’t matter, it’s just us. Imposing ourselves, taking the game to the opposition, because when we do that we have chances in games to come out victorious.
It’s just when we go the other way and we get nervous. In terms of the performance, for us to go to Millwall, we got a point, we had a scrap, we had a fight. My only complaint would be that we never attacked enough in the second half, we tried to sit on it and that doesn’t work.
If we can start as well as we did against Millwall, if we can battle as well as we did against Boro, if we can avoid the temptation to sit back and defend any lead we gain, then maybe, just maybe, we have a chance of a home win.