Champions’ League here we come

Richard Keeling looks back on a Villa Park season to remember.

Well, what a season! It started with a hammering and ended with a hammering, but a lot of great stuff happened in between. I don’t think many people last August expected Villa to finish in the top four, but we managed it despite the early and late reversals. We haven’t won anything, but it surely must rank as one of the more memorable seasons in the club’s history, bringing us a place in the Champions’ League for the first time.

This season reminds older supporters like me of the 1976-77 season, when Ron Saunders’ team also finished fourth and played some cracking football before running out of steam. We won the League Cup after two replays that season, while a Conference League semi-final was the best we could manage this time. However, 1976-77 turned out to be a step on the road to our becoming champions of Europe and wouldn’t it be great to see history repeat itself?

A Champions’ League place hasn’t always seemed a likely outcome, especially when Villa lost 4-0 to Spurs at Villa Park on March 10th. That looked very much like the end of our hopes of a top four finish, though Spurs seemed to have a more difficult run-in than we did, so not all was lost. They were obviously on form, though, while fatigue and the inevitable Aston Villa injury list made it plain which team was the more likely contender. Spurs only had the league to focus on, too, while Villa were going to have to play two games a week for as long as we remained in Europe.

Up to March 10th Spurs had lost only six Premier League games out of twenty-seven, so it was surprising that they imploded sufficiently to lose six of the remaining eleven fixtures, starting with a 3-0 defeat at Fulham immediately after their impressive result at Villa Park.

While Villa were the main beneficiaries of this sudden loss of form by Spurs, I think it should take nothing away from the team’s ability to keep plugging away despite a demanding fixture list, an injury-hit squad and several players who had of necessity been overused during a long season. While Spurs were getting through their eleven remaining matches, Villa played fifteen.

Our results after that body blow inflicted by in March weren’t great, but we only lost three more league matches. We won three and drew four, which, while nowhere near the level of our performances earlier in the season, showed sufficient resilience for us to take fourth place. The win at Arsenal, in between the two draining games with Lille, was a particularly impressive and important feat.

Unai certainly got a measure of revenge for his treatment at Arsenal a few years ago as they’ve only lost five games this season and two of those have been to Villa. If they had taken those six points, they would have won the league comfortably. It provides a splendid contrast with the days ten years or so ago when Arsene Wenger’s team would expect each meeting with Aston Villa to produce a routine three points.

When we heard, back in August, that we would be without Tyrone Mings and Emiliano Buendia for the season, it was a body blow. I resigned myself to thinking that the Europa League would be the absolute limit of our ambitions, and that we would be lucky even to achieve that. Every team has its quota of injuries, of course, but Villa always seem to have our quota plus a few more. Jacob Ramsey and Boubacar Kamara have also been long-term absentees, while most of the of the other regular first team players have been out for several matches at one time or another.

We have been fortunate, though, to have a nucleus of players who have seemed relatively resistant to injury during the season. Without that stability, it would have been very difficult to achieve what we have done. Emi Martinez, Ezri Konsa, Pau Torres, John McGinn, Douglas Luiz and Ollie Watkins were available for most of the games. The decisions early in the season to add Nicolo Zaniolo and Clément Lenglet to the squad on loan have helped to provide extra midfield and defensive options. Also, the purchase of Morgan Rogers at the beginning of February has worked out well, though it is galling that Manchester City were entitled to 25% of the purchase fee.

A feature of the season has been the regular changing of the central defensive pair, which has helped to make the defence look a bit suspect at times, but overcoming the loss of Tyrone Mings at such an early stage of the season was always going to be a challenge.

A feature of Unai’s relatively brief tenure to date has been the ability to improve many of the players. Leon Bailey has perhaps been the outstanding example but many of the other players have become more consistent, with fewer off days. Unai has also been able to tweak the tactics during the game more successfully than most of his predecessors at Villa Park. We have waited decades for somebody like him to arrive in the Villa Park hot seat.

Like Newcastle last season, Villa have been punching well above our weight, though a season in the Champions’ League should add a bit more weight. The pitfalls of being what the football Establishment likes rather patronisingly to call a ‘Challenger Club’ have been well illustrated by Newcastle this season, who finished bottom of their Champions’ League group despite an impressive 4-1 victory over PSG back in October. The workload of playing regular matches against some of the top clubs in Europe while trying to compete at a high level in the Premier League resulted in a horrendous injury list which has hampered their progress this season. That is something which I think could happen to us next season, though it may not, because, as we know, our manager walks on water.

While I am delighted that Villa are breaking new ground and starting to get attention as a contender at the elite level, part of me thinks that we might be trying to run before we can walk. After all, eighteen months ago we were only just out of the relegation zone. A season in the Europa League would have made a good stepping stone towards establishing ourselves at the top level. The trouble with thinking like that, though, is that something usually goes wrong, with the result that we would end up missing out on the Champions’ League altogether. A bird in the hand and all that, even if it presents the club with a very big challenge.

Villa will enter the new Champions’ League 36-team format, starting in September. For the first time, the competition will include one 36-team group, with each side taking on eight others, four at home and four away. Teams who finish in the top eight of the group will automatically qualify for the last 16, with those ninth to 24th going into a two-legged play-off stage to attempt to secure their path to the last 16 of the competition. Teams that finish 25th or lower will be eliminated, with no access to the Europa League. After that, the competition will continue in its existing knockout format, with the final taking place on May 31st next year. I don’t know about you, but I feel worn out just thinking about all that football to be played.

Unai and his backroom staff will need to make sure not only that we have a good Champions’ League run but that we will be in the Premier League top four again this time next year. We don’t want to have just a single Champions’ League season which in years to come is regarded as a fluke. Elite football is dominated by money and the wealthiest clubs tend to win most of the trophies. If the owners are to grow the business to its full potential, the club will need regular participation in European competitions and particularly the Champions’ League.

After years of decline during the Premier League era, overseen by a succession of poor owners, doesn’t it feel great to be upbeat about our prospects? We have owners who have barely put a foot wrong since their arrival in late 2018, apart from the appointment of a certain Liverpudlian gentleman. The importance of having competent owners has been well illustrated this season by the unfortunate goings-on just across the city. Mind you, when Sawiris and Edens appointed Unai, I doubt that they thought for a minute that it would take him only a season and a half to get Villa into the top four. They must be as delighted as the fans.

We supporters may be enjoying the afterglow of a mostly fine season, but it is now that the hard work starts for the club if our Champions’ League experience is to be more than a one-off. Hopefully it will be possible to strengthen the squad this summer without infringing the financial rules. Next season will see stiff competition for the top four again, with Chelsea possibly added to the mix. Manchester United must surely start to come good again soon and Newcastle will be hungry to repeat last season’s outstanding performance. Experience to date suggests that we have the right people in place to consolidate our position. Let’s hope so and I for one can hardly wait for the new season to begin.