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Aston Villa have started December, the month which is likely to most test their promotion aspirations by limping, quite literally with their growing injury list, to 2 points following their latest outing, an uninspiring goalless draw at home to Millwall.
In truth anyone in the 29,628 crowd, the Championship’s highest attendance of the day buoyed by 2100 travelling Millwall supporters, will know this was more than a point gained than two points lost following a man of the match performance by Villa goalkeeper Sam Johnstone.
The won’t be many of Villa’s promotion rivals with a more testing set of fixtures than Villa now face over the Christmas period, beginning with 4th place Derby away next Saturday, followed by a 5.30pm home televised clash with 6th place Sheffield United, another TV date on Boxing night with a trip to an improving Brentford side then it’s playoff hopefuls Middlesbrough away and finally 3rd place Bristol City at home on New Year’s Day.
Steve Bruce has often said he doesn’t look at the league table until after Christmas and if Villa are still in the mix after this Christmas they will truly have the look of promotion candidates but they will definitely have to improve on their latest performance where they struggled to contain Millwall’s speedy counter attacks over running Villa’s midfield at times to swamp a slow and flat footed looking defence.
After the game Bruce admitted to the Birmingham Evening Mail that he got what turned out to be a big selection error in leaving out midfield playmaker Conor Hourihane preferring to use last week’s goal hero Henri Lansbury instead!
“But overall I got it wrong. It’s my job. I’ve left Hourihane out because I just think he needs freshening up a little bit, but he’ll be raring to next week. “I thought we missed the control that he (Hourihane) gives us but I just went for the physicality because of it being Millwall.”
Villa were one of the Championship’s form teams over the last few weeks before the last two games and they must now bounce back to winning ways quickly to avoid falling back into the chasing pack.
There’s a full week before the next game, away at Derby so Bruce will be hoping an injury list that will have seen many teams buckle will begin to ease.
And there does seem some light at the end of the tunnel with some players, including Mile Jedinak, Scott Hogan and Gabby Agbonlahor returning to fitness although you wonder whether the treatment room would be better fitted with a revolving door as Chris Samba and Henri Lansbury both reported hamstring tweaks in the Millwall game.
Villa will view the return to the training pitches of Hogan and Agbonlahor in particular with some relief as it is upfront where they have suffered most, relying on a forward pairing of rookie Keinan Davies and Tottenham loanee Josh Onomah, whose combined age is a mere 39.
Admirably as they have done it has left the forward positions short of goals and with last year’s leading scorer Jonathan Kodja out for the long term Bruce is set to look for an experienced number 9 in the transfer window, although the financial fair play rules will mean it’s more likely the loan market they will need to look at.
Before then though there are the 4 massive games to negotiate and no doubt Scott Hogan will be looking for the chance to get his heavily injury affected, stuttering Villa career back on track and begin living up to his initial £9 million price tag having signed from Boxing night foes Brentford a year ago!
These next 4 fixtures might not make or break the season but they will be massive and if Hogan does step up to the plate along with the rest of the team it will be difficult to deny Villa’s aspirations especially as they will only have 2 of the current top 10 teams left to visit and they’ve only endured only 1 home defeat so far this season.
With some of the hardest trips behind them a successful December will surely make Steve Bruce’s first serious look at the Championship table a happy one!
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