Am I a bad fan? Or merely someone who, fearing a bad result, wanted to enjoy the first day of the new year for a few more hours before learning the bad news?
New Year’s Day, 2014. Villa are due to play Sunderland at 9 a.m. in my time zone. I roll out of bed around 8 a.m., none the worse for wear after a quiet night in with family—a dimly heard a few bangs, gunshots or firecrackers, at midnight—and check the Tivo to make sure it will record the game on time. Then I make coffee, read the paper, and enjoy a lovely breakfast prepared by my wife. (Krapsu: it’s Finnish for “oven pancake that beats hell out of the kind you make on a griddle.”)
Game time rolls around and I roll my chair into my desk and spend a few hours working. I’m trying to finish a novel, for god’s sake. My agent and cowriter are counting on me. And I’ll be utterly useless if Villa let points slip away from a last-place team.
Work finished. I could watch the game. Nice day for a run! It’s about twenty degrees and the wind is blowing the snow into sizeable drifts, but why not? Hypothermia sounds preferable to watching an abject performance at the Stadium of Light. I manage a little over four miles into the teeth of the wind along Chicago’s lakefront, snot turning to icicles I can’t fully remove until I return to the warmth of my building’s lobby.
Now I’m ravenous, so I bolt down a sandwich and steel my nerves for a game. “We’re setting it up in the living room!” chirps my seven-year-old son, referring not to the delayed broadcast but to the board of Ticket to Ride, a gift from my mom to her grandsons. What kind of dad would I be if I said no?
Two and a half hours later, the board game is over, and dad has won by a handy margin. I’d meant to keep it close or possibly even throw the game, but, distracted, I forgot. Channeling my inner James J. Hill, I wiped the table with my quart-sized competitors.
Finally, I turned on the game, reasonably certain that my Ticket to Ride win would be the only victory I would taste that day. Yes, Sunderland are abysmal at home, one of the few sides with a Premier League record worse than Villa. And, yes, Villa play better away. And, yes, this should be an absolute no-brainer, write-it-down, count-your-money three points for us, but this is Villa we’re talking about. A side that has shown moments of brilliance this season, but those moments of brilliance have been getting fewer and farther between.
And Villa, who so often start brightly before falling apart, looked poor from the whistle, allowing Sunderland too much possession and too many chances—until normally reliable Sunderland captain Lee Cattermole gifted an alert Gabby Agbonlahor the ball on the edge of the penalty box, and, after coolly dribbling past the diving Vito Mannone to put the visitors up 1-0.
After that, it was Villa who looked, for most of the match, like the brighter side. We really should have finished with more goals, as last year’s Benteke suddenly rematerialized, showing strength and control in the box, beating the keeper only to be denied by an alert Phil Bardsley’s header. And Albrighton and Delph had excellent late-game chances that they failed to put on frame.
Indeed, in the last ten minutes of the game, watching Villa HOLD THE BALL, STRINGING MULTIPLE PASSES TOGETHER, I had a feeling that I hadn’t had in a long time—that we were every bit as good, if not better, than the team we were playing.
If only that team weren’t the team in last place.
Reasons for Pessimism
Playing on the counterattack is well and good, but we need to start getting our possession numbers out of the twenties.
Benteke’s first half. He gave the ball away badly too many times.
Reasons for Optimism
Benteke’s second half. Flashes of last year. If he sticks around, and I just can’t see him leaving in January, he could provide a huge boost in the second half of the season. Glad to have him back.
Luna still goes walkabout too often, but the defense was solid, and, even when Sunderland held the ball, we didn’t get pinned back quite as far as we sometimes do. Glad to have Ron Vlaar back, too.
Gabby Gabby Gabby Gabby Gabby Agbonlahor!
Three points, eleventh place, six points above the relegation zone. Even with Arsenal and Liverpool coming up, that’s quite a bit of breathing room. Missed opportunities in the last month may well come back to haunt us, but, as my friend Martyn put it, Villa are 100% in 2014!