A relegation six-pointer between 20th and 13th. It's been that kind of season.
Aston Villa are in dire straits. One point from their last five games tells its own story, but there's more. Their football of late has been desperate. In the 1-1 draw against Swansea they managed 27 per cent possession. At home. Fans are unhappy, there were boos at Villa Park after said draw, key players are missing and manager Paul Lambert has admitted he "is not immune" to the possibility of being sacked.
Cardiff 2-2 S'land (Prem)
Everton 0-1 S'land (Prem)
S'land 0-0 Norwich (Prem)
S'land e2-1 Chelsea (LC)
West Ham 0-0 S'land (Prem)
Aston Villa 1-1 Swansea (Prem)
Aston Villa 0-1 Palace (Prem)
Stoke 2-1 Aston Villa (Prem)
Aston Villa 0-3 Man Utd (Prem)
Fulham 2-0 Aston Villa (Prem)
It's been a December to forget for Villans everywhere and, just four points above the relegation zone, things need get better sooner rather than later if another season spent battling the drop is to be avoided.
In Lambert's defence, there have been mitigating circumstances behind Villa's demise. The absence of last season's 19-goal hero Christian Benteke is bad enough, but injuries to Jores Okore and captain Ron Vlaar have also decimated the team's spine.
Nonetheless, some of the stats from the Swansea game - Brad Guzan making as many attacking-third passes as any other Villa player and the top 26 passing combinations all involving Swansea players - are shockingly bad. "I feel we're a million miles from where I want to go," Lambert conceded after the Swansea game. That his chairman is Randy Lerner, and not one of the Vincent Tans of this world, is a blessing the Scot must be thankful for.
Hosts Sunderland's form book is in contrast to their opponents. Four games unbeaten and the jubilation of a late comeback from two goals down at Cardiff to draw 2-2 would ordinarily be enough to lift spirits on Wearside, but ultimately it's tempered by the fact the Black Cats remain at the foot of the table.
We all know what happens to the team that's bottom of the Premier League on Christmas Day historically, but there's no doubt this season feels different; Sunderland are just four points off 15th, after all. Still, a continuation of their recent upturn in form is needed.
Sunderland are without Keiren Westwood (shoulder), Wes Brown (suspended) and Carlos Cuellar (hip) while Gus Poyet will check on the fitness of Adam Johnson, John O'Shea and Fabio Borini before deciding whether to include them. Borini was taken to hospital during the Cardiff game after falling ill, but could return to the team quicker than originally expected.
Reports suggest Lambert might rush Vlaar back into action here, while Benteke has trained with the squad in the last few days and has a decent chance of returning. Ciaran Clark is suspended, while Okore, Joe Bennett and Charles N'Zogbia are all likely to miss out through injury.
Key Battle: Ki Sung-Yueng vs Fabian Delph
Regularly Sunderland's top passer, Ki has been a vital player for Poyet since the Uruguayan took over from Paolo Di Canio. The South Korean midfielder is a fundamental cog in Poyet's attempts to introduce a more possession-based focus to the Black Cats; with a pass completion rate of 91% Ki is one of the league's most accurate midfield ball players. He's a lovely player to watch and has also popped up with very important, match-winning goals in the League Cup against Chelsea and at Everton.
Delph meanwhile, is another player who tends to go under the radar despite his importance to the team. A combative, high-energy midfielder who is far from shy in the tackle, Delph is in the league's top 15 for tackles per game and adds much-needed bite to a team that often looks a soft touch.
Delph scored a brilliant winner in Villa's last league win, over Southampton in December, and was impressive throughout - making more ball recoveries and as many tackles and successful dribbles as any player on the day. Lambert has said his man has the ability to play for England. It may be too early to talk of the former Leeds man at that level, but Villa need Delph at his best if they're to pick up three points.
Villa 0-0 S'land (Prem, Nov 13)
Villa 6-1 S'land (Prem, Apr 13)
S'land 0-1 Villa (Prem, Nov 12)
Villa 0-0 S'land (Prem, Apr 12)
S'land 2-2 Villa (Prem, Oct 11)
Two weeks after his appointment as Brighton manager in 2009, Poyet travelled to Norwich to face Paul Lambert's promotion-bound Canaries in League One. His team lost 4-1. Lambert also triumphed 2-1 in the return game at the Withdean Stadium. He'll be hoping to make it three in a row against his managerial counterpart on New Year's Day.
Facts and figures
- Sunderland have scored 16 goals in the last 22 Premier League games against Villa, and only more than once in a game on 1 occasion.
- There have been 4 red cards in the last 4 league meetings between Sunderland and Villa at Villa Park.
- Sunderland have not had both teams scoring in their last 4 matches against middle-third teams.
More FFT Stats Zone facts • Find the best odds with Bet Butler
A tight and nervous affair awaits, but Villa's counter-attacking game just about helps them sneak a win. 1-2.
Sunderland vs Aston Villa LIVE ANALYSIS with Stats Zone
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