Aston Villa v Spurs: Matters haven’t improved for McLeish in the Midlands
It seems no-one is safe these days and, after West Ham’s shock relegation in 2003 and Newcastle’s demise in 2009, it is Aston Villa’s turn to peer nervously into the abyss.
The Villans finished sixth in the top flight three years in a row under Martin O’Neill, in 2008, 2009 and 2010.
Yet, two years on, Alex McLeish is in very real danger of ending his first season at the helm by taking the Midlands club down into the Championship.
That would be a bitter pill for the fans to swallow, given that McLeish was a fairly unpopular appointment in the first place.
Having been relegated with arch-rivals Birmingham City last season – going down on the final day of the season at White Hart Lane – ‘Big Eck’ was a controversial choice to replace Gerard Houllier at Villa Park.
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Now, 12 months after suffering the drop in north London, Harry Redknapp’s Spurs are blocking McLeish’s path to safety with the other club in Birmingham.
Relegation was certainly not on the cards at the start of January, when Villa were just as close to fifth-placed Arsenal as they were to struggling Wolves.
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However, McLeish’s boys have won just two of their 16 top-flight fixtures since then.
Villa are the second-lowest scorers in the Premier League, with 36 goals in their 36 games. Only Stoke (34) have less – and today’s hosts have also lost eight of their 18 home games in the top flight, winning just four.
The result is that they go into this clash with Spurs as one of five sides fighting to avoid two relegation spots.
“I will not curl up and die,” said McLeish. “I will persevere to the end as I always have done. It gives me great pride to be manager of these players. We have had some troubles this season but we have some key players back now.”
McLeish has certainly been unlucky with his absentees over the last two months – including the ex-Spurs striker Darren Bent, the captain Stilian Petrov and defender Richard Dunne.
Bent’s ankle injury ended his season in February, depriving Villa of their top scorer – he still has nine league goals – and Petrov, who is third on Villa’s scorers list, was diagnosed with leukaemia at the end of March.
Goals have consequently become a real problem, and the Villans have mustered just eight strikes in their last 13 games – partly because Emile Heskey has just one solitary strike in 27 appearances this season.
“The difference is getting the goals and the finishing,” said McLeish, who watched his side draw a blank for the 13th time in their goalless draw with West Brom last weekend.
“We have been unlucky but one of the guys will get the goals we want in the next two games.”
Villa will be anxious to make the most of their final home game against Spurs, as they look ahead to a tricky trip to Norwich on the final day of the season – and they have been buoyed by Dunne’s return.
The Republic of Ireland international missed 10 games with a shoulder injury, but was back in the heart of the defence last Saturday as Villa kept the Baggies at bay at the Hawthorns.
Dunne is likely to line up alongside Carlos Cuellar today, in addition to the ex-Spurs man Alan Hutton and the American left-back Eric Lichaj.
Goalkeeper Shay Given is a proven Premier League star, while Gabriel Agonlahor and Heskey will present familiar threats with their combination of pace and power.
Villa’s midfield looks weak, though. Full-back Stephen Warnock has recently been playing out of position on the left of midfield, while centre-back Ciaran Clark has been moved into central midfield alongside the little-known Chris Herd, and the inconsistent winger Charles N’Zogbia.
The verdict: Villa have drawn nearly half of their games (16 out of 36) and are capable of holding Spurs while threatening on the break. 1-1