The hard work has been done, and yet the hard work continues. Such is the demand on a relegation-threatened club.
Despite Aston Villa’s outstanding 6-1 win against Sunderland last Monday, Paul Lambert’s side are still caught up in one of the Premier League’s tightest ever survival scraps.
Should Wigan win their game in hand, just five points could separate the Latics in 18th and Fulham in 11th.
Much rests on that extra game. Its existence means that for now the likes of Villa, Sunderland, Newcastle and Norwich have little breathing room as the season draws to a close.
Lose, and Roberto Martinez’s men will almost certainly join Reading and QPR in the Championship next season. Win and it could all come down to the final match between the Latics and the Villains.
Which is why this afternoon’s match between Villa and Norwich is the latest “cup final” for Lambert’s side (and Chris Hughton’s for that matter); Villa will want to be clear of danger before their trip to the DW Stadium on the last day.
And while Christian Benteke rightly won the plaudits following his hat-trick against the Black Cats, this afternoon’s trip to Carrow Road may see the emphasis on another of Villa’s goal-scorers that evening.
Having moved from Feyenoord last summer, Dutch international Ron Vlaar could not have anticipated the trials and tribulations of this campaign.
Signed for just £3million, he was talked of as the potential bargain of the transfer window. Instead he has seen 64 opposition goals breach the Villa defence in 35 league matches.
He has appeared in 24 of those games, playing the full 90 minutes on all but one occasion.
But what is perhaps most telling about Villa’s defence is that Vlaar – along with ‘keeper Brad Guzan and fullback Matthew Lowton – has been one of the team’s best performers.
A clean-sheet this afternoon will go a long way to securing Villa’s top flight status.
In the form the side’s front-men are in, it is unlikely they won’t score against a Norwich side that have already conceded 54 times themselves.
In an interview last week, Vlaar acknowledged that relegation for his side would have far-reaching effects.
“It’s not only about the players,” he said, “it’s about the club and everybody involved in the club.”
So for what is left of this season, Vlaar must marshal a defence that has great long-term potential; much like all of Villa’s side.
At 28, the Dutch centre-back is one of few wise heads in a team of inexperience.
Should he help inspire them to three points this afternoon, they may just get the chance to grow together as a Premier League side; in which case, you doubt they will return to its lower echelons any time soon.
How good has Vlaar between for Villa this season? And how will the team perform this afternoon?
image: © ell brown