Aston Villa are currently sat comfortably in 11th place. Hopefully too far away from the bottom to be in the conversation for a relegation battle, but possibly also too far away from the top end of the table to be competing for Europe.
After a humiliating exit from the F.A Cup, though, the Premier League is all that is left for Unai Emery's Villa team to focus on. So with thirteen games remaining, what's the target? Is the aim to get as many points on the board as possible and hope teams above Villa slip up? Or does Emery and his coaching staff use this time to try and implement a style and decide which of the current squad make the cut next season?
The truth inevitably lies somewhere in the middle. With a potential big summer transfer window ahead, next season appears to be where Villa will target success. Anything from this season will simply be a bonus at this point.
How high can Villa finish?
Mathematically speaking, Villa are still in the fight for Europe. However, if you were to ask the average supporter what our chances are of making it, you'd probably receive a less than confident response which is understandable given Villa's recent history.
Having said that, the form table since Emery took over at Villa Park does make for confident reading. Aston Villa sit nicely in 4th spot since defeating Manchester United in Emery's first game in charge of the club in early November, with only United themselves alongside Manchester City and Arsenal doing better than Villa in this time period.
With 22 points from 12 games, it's fair to say that Villa are in top 6 form. So why shouldn't Villa fans be more confident?
After Manchester United's Carabao Cup win, it looks like 7th place will earn a UEFA Conference League spot. At the time of writing, that position is currently held by Fulham who find themselves only 5 points ahead of Villa. Now on paper, that doesn't sound too bad. As we know, though, it's the teams between Villa and Fulham that are the concern.
The idea of Fulham dropping points doesn't seem too unrealistic. However, the thought of Brighton, Brentford (who both have two games in hand) and Chelsea all doing the same feels like a stretch. And even then, we would be relying on Villa to go on a run.. a run that now feels incredibly less likely given the absence of a certain Frenchman.
Villa without Kamara
Saturday's 1-0 victory over Crystal Palace ended up being a bittersweet experience after Boubacar Kamara hobbled off the pitch with what appears to be a pretty serious injury. Although we don't have an exact time frame of how long the midfielder will be out for, Unai Emery suggested it may be some weeks;
“I don’t know exactly. I don’t know. At the beginning, maybe it’ll be some weeks away. I don’t know exactly. I don’t know the name of it. It’s not the ankle.”
So if we were to assume the worst, this would mean Leander Dendoncker will be stepping in alongside Douglas Luiz for the majority of the remaining games.. You can see why most Villa fans aren't confident about Europe!
Of course Dendoncker can come in and do a job, but Boubacar Kamara he is not. In fact, the few cameos the Belgian has had under Emery have mostly been disastrous with the mistake against Stevenage still fresh in most fans' minds.
Brazilian bounce back
Where one door closes, another opens. Although Kamara may be absent for upcoming games, it does appear that Diego Carlos is closing in on a return. Now I'm not getting too carried away as chances are Carlos will need a fair chunk of time to get back up to speed.
The Brazilian's injury was a severe one and he hasn't played since early August. He will need to be slowly introduced back into the team, and even if he gets back to match fitness, we are yet to find out whether he'll ever be the same. However, there's no denying that he's a welcomed option for the remainder of the season.
If Carlos can reclaim a spot at center back, then we may see Emery experiment with Ezri Konsa at right back. Although Matty Cash was excellent against Palace, I think most people can see that Emery would rather have that position filled by a more defensive-minded player. Only time will tell, but it will be interesting to see how Villa's back four looks come the end of the season. It may also give us a sneaky glimpse into how we shape up in the next campaign.
Right then, I've dropped a lot of facts and figures but I am yet to get off the fence. Sadly, my prediction is that Villa will not reach a European place this season. Though, I also believe we won't finish any lower than we are now.
One of the teams above Villa will undoubtedly fade away. Newcastle look to have completely run out of steam and one of Fulham, Brentford or Brighton could easily go the same way. But will all of them drop enough points to leave an opening? I highly doubt it. Even then, with a double pivot of Dendoncker and Luiz (who still worries me when not playing alongside Kamara) for the upcoming run of games, I wouldn't be surprised to see Villa drop a few crucial points against teams we should be beating.
As boring as it is to say, I can't see Villa finishing anywhere other than 9th, 10th or 11th. Unlike what nearly happened to Steven Gerrard this time last year, Emery has this team playing too well to get suckered into what looks to be a massive relegation scrap from 12th down, but he also doesn't have the players to push on for a European spot at this time.
If Kamara is back sooner than we fear, and if we see no more big injuries, AND if Carlos can be involved in an effective way, then there's definitely a chance for Villa to cause an upset. But that's a lot of big ifs!
Truthfully, I just hope Emery uses this time to figure out exactly who he needs next season, and who he doesn't. Although I am confident the team will go out to try and win every game, I can't help but feel the focus has already shifted to next season, and that's okay.
Some fans will point to the previous transfer window and claim that if the club had been more active then there's a chance we could have been more competitive at the top end of the table this season. Although that's probably true, the rumblings coming out of the Villa camp is that the players Emery wanted weren't available at the right price yet. What that does tell me is that the next window could be very exciting for Villa fans!
Over the next few months, Emery has an incredible opportunity to really fine-tune this team. Whether or not we reach Europe come May, one thing is for certain; Emery will know exactly what he needs to improve Aston Villa next season. With a fully fit squad, the right incomings & outgoings, and a well drilled style of play, Villa could be a force to be reckoned with next season.. but maybe not in this one unfortunately.