View from Villa Park: Grealish the inspiration for play-offs push
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Ahead of Sunday's clash with Norwich City on the final day of the regular Championship season, Aston Villa fan David Michael is fully focused on the play-offs.
Q: Dean Smith has proved an inspired appointment – what have been the main changes he's made?
A: Initially, it was about playing players in their rightful positions to give the team a better balance and implementing his style of play, which was always going to take time to gel. While 2019 didn't begin too well, Smith laid important foundations with the loan signings of Tyrone Mings and Kortney Hause, and recalling Tommy Elphick and Jed Steer from their loans. These moves would later go a long way to shoring up Villa's problematic defence. Making Jack Grealish captain on his return from injury seemed to inspire the team into life and a 10-game winning run.
Q: After a brilliant run of form, how confident are Villa fans of going up via the play-offs?
A: At the moment, we are understandably very confident. Last season, we fell victim to a team in similarly great form (and our own ineptitude in the play-off final). Also, we go into the play-offs with pretty much a fully-fit squad, which will certainly be a first this season. I would say, team for team, these play-offs are more difficult than last year's. A two-legged semi-final against West Brom will be tougher than last season's against Boro, but at Wembley we'd fancy our chances against any team. If it's Leeds, we haven't played them this season with a full-strength team – 25-goal Tammy Abraham was missing from the last week's encounter at Elland Road and he'll be back so we've got another gear they haven't faced yet.
Q: John McGinn is set to sit out the game due to the risk of suspension – do you expect any other players to be rested?
A: Yes. I'd be surprised if Mings starts and if Grealish plays more than an hour. Saying that, many key players haven't really played a long season, due to injuries or them coming in on loan, so they are mentally and physically fresh.
Q: Are there any fringe players who could come in with a point to prove?
A: I think the Norwich game will be used to give certain squad players some minutes, just in case they're called upon in play-off games. I'd expect the likes of Henri Lansbury, Birkir Bjarnason, Hause and Elphick to play. Alan Hutton will no doubt play some part, so he can get a sentimental Villa Park send-off, as it's unlikely he'll get a new contract, as he turns 35 later this year.
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Q: Which players have been key to the play-off surge since the turn of the year?
A: Mings has been excellent, a physical and vocal force, who has added much spirit and organisation to the back-line. He'll be playing Premier League football next season, whether Villa go up or not. The same could be said of McGinn, who recently won both the Players' and Supporters' Player of the Year awards. He's been on another level and made our midfield a lot more dynamic. Like Grealish, if Villa want to keep him, they'll need to get promoted. Grealish has been the overall catalyst for Villa's recent revival. He's very much provided the electricity that has sparked his team-mates into life. Since he's worn the captain's armband, Villa are unbeaten in 11 games (including 10 wins).
Q: How concerned are you about the financial implications of not going up this season?
A: While the Villa CEO has reassured me to my face the club hopefully will be okay, he did admit there are obviously some choppy waters to navigate. Certainly, if Villa remain in the Championship, they will be downgrading their scope in terms of squad building – no more high wage loans, as per the last couple of seasons. After a poor start to the season, the play-offs have come as a bit of a bonus, although it is unlikely we'll have a better team in the foreseeable future to get us promoted.
Q: How impressed have you been with Norwich's promotion success?
A: I remember the talk was Norwich were going to be a force last season, although in hindsight, that was very much a transitional time for what was to come. Daniel Farke evolved how Norwich played and this season made them very consistent, relatively under the radar. It was Leeds that tended to grab the headlines earlier in the season. As a Villa fan, once we became relevant to the promotion picture again and started looking at the top of the table, Norwich seemed to have already quietly cemented their automatic promotion credentials. From a Villa supporter point of view, Sheffield United's rise under Chris Wilder on a limited budget has admittedly been more eye-catching, mainly because after battering us earlier in the season 4-1, they were then 3-0 up at Villa Park, before our very late comeback to draw 3-3. The way Norwich have won promotion is how I wished Villa could achieve it. Namely, with little fuss.
Q: A draw would seem to suit both teams nicely, would you settle for that or is a win important for maintaining momentum?
A: To be honest, this is nothing but a tune-up game for the play-offs, so a draw is perfectly fine. Hopefully, we can have a proper game next season in the Premier League.
Q: And finally, what is your prediction?
A: Considering Norwich only need a point to seal the title and Villa will be resting players and are probably content to stretch their unbeaten run to 13 (after the winning run ended last week), I'd go for 1-1.