When Aston Villa and Birmingham City last met in the League Cup, on a December night at St Andrew’s in 2010, the winning side – Alex McLeish’s Blues – went on to claim the trophy but lose their Premier League status.
It would take a brave man to bet on either of the Second City’s clubs achieving the former feat in this season’s competition but Villa fans could certainly be forgiven a few twitches of anxiety about their top-flight security.
The outstanding statistic after Saturday’s 1-0 loss to West Bromwich Albion was that this is now fourth-bottom Villa’s worst start after six fixtures since their 1986-87 relegation campaign under Billy McNeill. And manager Tim Sherwood knows victory against Birmingham in the Capital One Cup third round tonight is now even more important.
Sherwood himself admitted that the home side, winless in the Premier League since the opening day, were playing for “more than just a win” as he stressed the need to restore morale after a damaging 10 days which have brought back-to-back losses against two other Midlands rivals, Leicester City and West Bromwich. “It could give us the confidence boost that we need for the rest of the season,” he said yesterday.
Villa were booed off on Saturday, when one of Sherwood’s own substitutions earned the same reaction, and the manager added: “We understand that if things aren’t good fans are going to voice their concerns. We need to experience that winning feeling again. I’m not used to losing as many football games as we actually have. I knew this season would be a transition period. What’s surprised me is that we haven’t got as many points as we would have liked or deserved.”
It was back-to-back home league and cup wins over Albion that gave Sherwood’s reign lift-off in March, but Villa Park felt a very different place on Saturday as the hosts followed that late collapse at Leicester with an anaemic display. “It seemed a long way away from that Liverpool game, that’s for sure,” said Sherwood, recalling his high point at the club so far, April’s FA Cup semi-final win. A third straight derby defeat would deepen concerns but, in fairness to Sherwood, there are mitigating factors.
The 46-year-old is still bedding in 11 new players while adjusting to the loss of top scorer Christian Benteke and captain Fabian Delph. Without Benteke, Sherwood has no proven Premier League goalscorer; Gabriel Agbonlahor led the line on Saturday but has managed just four league goals in 12 months.
Sherwood, meanwhile, has seen signs that Idrissa Gana, his most impressive new signing, can provide some of Delph’s dynamism but the Senegal midfielder will miss his third successive game tonight with a hamstring injury.
As for replacing his leadership, the Villa manager acknowledged that “Fabian Delph was the biggest character we had”, yet argued he still had “big enough characters”, citing Ashley Westwood, Ciaran Clark and new defenders Joleon Lescott and Micah Richards. French left-back Jordan Amavi’s half-hearted effort to win a 50-50 before Albion’s winner at the weekend was less encouraging, although Sherwood insists his new boys “have been told” just what tonight means.
Birmingham’s players certainly will not needing telling. Manager Gary Rowett admitted yesterday that the nine first-team regulars left out of the win against Gillingham in the last round – including the sought-after winger Demerai Gray – have been knocking on his door asking to be involved. Rowett’s side sit seventh in the Championship after losing just one of nine games in all competitions and have considerably more confidence than Villa right now.
“We’ve got nothing to fear,” said Rowett. “We’ve got to go there and enjoy the game and play without pressure. We can do that because of the way we’ve performed over recent weeks and months. It’s another game where we’ve got to go into it thinking, ‘Can we cause Villa one or two problems?’”
Recent evidence suggests they can, although Sherwood, whose side visit Liverpool on Saturday, sees a potential turning point. “As quick as it can change the wrong way, it can change the right way again,” he declared.