After beating Wigan Athletic in mid-December, Norwich City stood seventh in the Premier League and that giddy word "Europe" was mentioned. Since then they have played 19 League games, of which they have won just two. Relegation form is starting to look ominously like having its natural outcome.
If the Canaries are to reach the 40 points commonly considered enough to avoid that fate they must win one or draw both of their remaining games: since the last is away to Manchester City, Sunday's home finale against West Bromwich Albion has a real "must-win" look about it.
The manager, Chris Hughton, meanwhile, is starting to wear a haunted look.
After Gabriel Agbonlahor's last-minute goal made it 2-1 – and gave Villa their fifth win in eight games to hit that 40-point mark – a weary Hughton declared himself "massively disappointed and frustrated".
"I don't think it was a game we deserved to lose," he said. "We knew what the strengths were of Villa, we know the quality of Agbonlahor, [Andreas] Weimann and [Christian] Benteke, and I thought for large periods of the game we kept them quiet, particularly Benteke, who is in real good form at the moment. But we've conceded two poor goals. If you do that, it means you've got to score three.
"Before the game we spoke to the team about trying to be a greater threat in the final third, and I think we managed to do that. But you've got to score goals and that's been difficult for us.
"We're in a battle. We know that. We've put ourselves in this position. This was a game we wanted to win; we haven't done that. It's a big job but it's still in our hands. We need to dust these players down and make sure we show a lot of the good things we've shown today – we're going to need every bit of that next week. If we were to get a win, that changes things."
There is not much right now that Paul Lambert, the Villa manager, would care to change. This win, following last Monday's 6-1 thrashing of Sunderland, left his fans gleefully chorusing: "We are staying up". And though Lambert refused to take that for granted, he is clearly looking forward to another Premier League season.
"Everybody said we were dead and buried, with all our young players, but I think we're playing ever so well at this moment in time. We've got a lot of good footballers in the side. If we keep that level, keep building, then hopefully we'll have a big future," Lambert said. "We've been playing really well without getting the breaks. I couldn't be disappointed with the performances; now what we're getting is performances plus results."
In truth, the result on Saturday was better than the performance – bar that of Agbonlahor, whose second-half display thoroughly deserved the assertion by his manager that he is "on fire". How Norwich, averaging less than a goal a game, could do with some similar combustion on Sunday.
Goals: Norwich City Holt pen 74. Aston Villa Agbonlahor 55, 89.
Subs: Norwich Kamara (Hoolahan, 71), E Bennett (Snodgrass, 85), Jackson (Garrido, 90). Aston Villa Lichaj 6 (Lowton, 28), Holman (Sylla, 78).
Booked: Norwich Johnson, R Bennett. Aston Villa J Bennett, Delph, Benteke.
Man of the match Agbonlahor. Match rating 5/10. Possession: Norwich 57%. Aston Villa 43%.
Attempts on target: Norwich 4. Aston Villa 6.
Referee K Friend (Leics). Attendance 26,842.Reuse content