Our travels this weekend take us to Villa Park, home of Aston Villa and hopeful locale of Champions League football next season.
Aston Villa are one of those few sides with the realistic ambition and ability to break into the Top Four. They currently lie 5th, two points ahead of Liverpool, two behind tottenham and three adrift of Man City.
Recent losses to Liverpool and Arsenal will not help their cause, but they have been largely solid this season, notching some notable wins against Chelsea and Man United.
Villa play some attractive football and Martin O’Neill’s side are commendably trying to attain success in the right way. They have pace upfront (Ashley Young, James Milner and Gabriel Agbonlahor), are solid at the back (Brad Friedel, Richard Dunne and Carlos Cuellar), and have the option of a release ball via big target man, John Carew.
Forgotten man Stewart Downing is also on the comeback trail and adds another option to a dynamic midfield, even though he’s rubbish. He does, however, have a worrying habit of scoring against us.
Villa haven’t played in the League this year, as their last two matches have both been postponed. They will be as fresh as Headhammer Shark’s morning donuts, which are about as fresh as it gets – he just drinks the batter.
Last season’s trip to Villa Park ended in a 1-1 draw, as a hallowed gust briefly reconstituted the charred remains of Diego Tristan just long enough for what appeared to be a boot to prod home a wayward effort by the revived Kieron Dyer, himself unwittingly jarred into action by the physio’s defibrillator.
Emile Heskey had put Villa one up after ten minutes, but they were left to rue their profligacy after both Heskey and Young hit the post in the first half.
Overall, Villa deserved the points, although we had our chances - Junior Stanislas notably twice going close early on. Indeed, we had a chance to win it at the end as Mark Noble’s deflected goal-bound effort produced a fine save by a lantern-jawed silverback gorilla masquerading as Brad Friedel.
Trips to Villa Park are generally tame affairs, with the game either drawn or settled by the odd goal.
3. You Take The High Road...
It wasn’t so long ago that ourselves and Aston Villa were comparable clubs. From one season to the next we could continually be relied upon to finish anywhere between 7th and 17th, a brief run of results invariably being all that would separate the two sides.
Both teams enjoyed significant investment around the same time, Villa thanks to American billionaire, Randy Lerner, and ourselves courtesy of a bunch of Nordic incompetents with a dishevelled abacus.
Our paths seemed to diverge around the time that both clubs were attempting to lure Ashley Young away from Vicarage Road.
Alan Pardew had cited Young and did his best to prize another gifted young player from the Championship to a club with more prospect of a prolonged stay in the top flight, much as he had done with Hayden Mullins and Nigel Reo-Coker.
Martin O’Neill offered a probable larger salary, a record of greater stability and his own unique enthusiasm. Pardew probably had his eyes on Young’s girlfriend.
Pardew never got the chance to follow through on his interest, although we still bid £10million for Young a month after our erstwhile manager got the chop. Young rejected the move, opting to sign for Villa for just over £9million and in the intervening years they have both gone from strength to strength.
With Curbishley at the helm, we proceeded to pilfer £20million on a host of has-been invalids, and the rest is history.
Much to the chagrin of fantasy football managers everywhere, the majority of last weekend’s programme was postponed due to the inclement weather, both our match against Wolves and Villa’s trip to Wigan among the victims.
In hindsight, this was probably a good thing, providing a chance for a few players in or loitering outside the treatment rooms the opportunity for another week’s recovery. Alternately, it afforded other players the chance to injure themselves in training, a’ la Guillermo Franco.
Whether the possibility to initiate some momentum with an easy home tie against Villa’s poor relations prior to an altogether more testing match this weekend was an opportunity missed, we’ll never know.
I’m inclined to think that the extra rest will serve us better, and who’s to say that a morale-crushing defeat to Wolves wouldn’t have precipitated an irrevocable decline?
5. Picture Book
'How's that bench-warming working out for you, Nige?'
6. You Couldn't Make It UpWhether I am being insular in my appraisal, I’m not sure, but West Ham fans must face more obstacles between themselves and even modest trinkets of success than most any others.
Not only have we dominated any and all press coverage about football’s financial mismanagement, but now we must even stare down meddlesome Death itself.
Just as the tireless tale of our prospective ownership seemed to be winding its way to some sort of conclusion, the CEO of one of the prospective buyers goes and dies at the weekend, casting more doubt on proceedings.
Churlish of me, perhaps – a man has died after all - but I know of no other club forced to contend with such morbid, finite concepts.
7. Transfer Targets
As has been the case for about 35-years, a striker is atop our fanciful wish list, should Scott Duxbury manage to get a few hundred quid for Kenny Brown’s clapped out Ford Capri, having buffed out the scratches sustained during Kenny’s ill-advised drag race with Gary Charles.
A few names have been touted, among them Stoke City’s James Beattie (not least by this blog a few weeks ago), Monaco’s Eidur Gudjohnsen (not least by this blog a few years ago), Portuguese veteran, Nuno Gomes, and Fiorentina’s ex-Chelsea coke-head, Adrian Mutu.
Gomes will be looking to boost his chances of an appearance at the World Cup, and while he may look fifteen, he will actually turn thirty-four during this summer’s international showpiece.
He has a decent scoring record at both international and Portuguese domestic level, but failed to shine during his spell at Fiorentina, having been signed after an impressive Euro 2000 tournament.
Gudjohnsen has been linked with us before, but opted to dissipate into the wilderness of Ligue 1, making just seven starts for Monaco this season. Old comrade Franco Zola may be able to tempt him over, but with his waning class and without the World Cup motivation of a Franco or Gomes, do we need a reluctant striker with a grating goal celebration?
Adrian Mutu is obviously just coming over to cosy up to good ol’ Luis Boa Morte and his big bag of barbiturates.
8. Turkish Delight
You may know that I don’t subscribe to HeadHammer Shark’s blind adoration of our departed captain, Lucas Neill.
It therefore comes as little wonder to me that the avaricious tugboat has declared three months on Merseyside to be quite enough and that he is to immediately join Galatasaray on an 18-month deal.
Neill has expressed “surprise” at signing for “a massive European Club”, although his shock can only stem from the personal astonishment that he managed to stick it out at Everton for so long without his Fabergé egg and chips being presented to him hourly by King Midas.