Aston Villa are starting to believe. A founder member of the Football League, Villa have not lifted the title since 1981 and have never done so in the Premier League era.
After wins over Manchester City and Arsenal, though, the wider football public has cottoned on to what Villa watchers have known for some time: Unai Emery’s men are the real deal and in this form will take some stopping.
Here Mail Sport looks at five questions Villa must answer to show they can stay in this race until the end.
It is not just the heavy defeats at Newcastle and Liverpool early in the season that stand out.
Two points from a potential nine at Nottingham Forest, Wolves and Bournemouth is not good enough for a team who aspire to stay in the title race until the end – and Emery has often highlighted the gap between their displays at home and away.
Yet Villa falter a little when asked to break down a team who are happy to play conservatively in front of their own fans – as Wolves and Forest did.
Sunday’s game at Brentford will be an excellent test in that respect, as Thomas Frank’s team are in poor form and are unlikely to take many risks against Villa.
Villa are now in the Catch-22 situation that Tottenham had to handle for so many years with Harry Kane.
They need quality back-up to Watkins, who is now a top-line Premier League centre-forward. But how many players of that calibre would be happy to join Villa, when they know they are unlikely to start many matches?
At the moment, Emery has Jhon Duran, who is talented but very raw, and Bertrand Traore, who Emery does not trust and is not really an orthodox centre-forward anyway. Emery has also thought about using Nicolo Zaniolo in that role.
The on-loan Italian has not settled at Villa Park but has the attributes to lead the line effectively in an Emery team. Perhaps this positional switch will be the making of his Villa career.
Villa are under no financial pressure to sell their midfield linchpin, who is admired by Arsenal, and co-owner Nassef Sawiris would not get out of bed for less than £100million, while there is not believed to be a specific release clause in his deal.
If Moises Caicedo, Declan Rice and Enzo Fernandez are worth more than that sum, Villa will reason, then so is Luiz.
The 25-year-old also signed a long-term deal last October. The unknown, however, is Luiz himself.
The Brazilian said he was ‘very happy’ to see the stories linking him with the Gunners, despite adding the usual caveat that his ‘head is here at Aston Villa’.
And that is the crux. Luiz is crucial to the way Villa play and they would suffer if he were distracted by offers from rivals and his performances affected as a result. Emery must sure his man’s mind is on the task in hand.
Emery has been happy to travel under the radar this term, insisting his team are not even among the top seven in the Premier League.
Wins over Manchester City and Arsenal in the space of four days means everyone is talking about Villa now, though, and Emery’s claim that ‘We are not contenders’ is looking more questionable by the week.
Villa are now the talk of the Premier League and every club will be studying them to try to find holes in Emery’s plan. This is where Villa will rely even more on their manager, who has 11 trophies in a stellar career, and senior players like Emi Martinez.
At the highest level, there is no pressure quite like the sharp end of a major tournament. Martinez proved he could cope by helping Argentina win the World Cup and he has the personality to thrive in a title race.
Until now Emery’s priority has been clear: the Premier League for his key men, the Europa Conference League to rotate them and give playing time to the second string.
It has worked so far, with Villa qualifying for the knockout stages with a game to spare, and Emery will surely make several changes for Thursday’s final group game, against Zrinjski Mostar in Bosnia.
But if Villa make more progress, Emery will be tempted to use his best players all the time, as the chance to win a first major trophy since 1996 draws closer. Villa have a strong squad, and their bench on Saturday looked more powerful than Arsenal’s.
Whether it is strong enough to compete to the end on two fronts is another matter. As painful as it may be for a four-time winner of the Europa League, Emery may have to let Europe go if Villa look like they can go the distance in the league.Read more 2023-12-10T14:19:04Z dg43tfdfdgfd