In keeping with the theme of taking stock during this most frenetic of Premier League seasons, the relegation battle is reaching boiling point, with teams attempting to grind out points left right and centre, most intriguing is the plight of Aston Villa.
Although the papers have been dominated by stories of how the rise of Manchester City and Tottenham have facilitated the collapse of the big four mentality in the Premier League, the biggest losers in the battle for European football and top half supremacy have undoubtedly been a Villa side that slipped to 1-0 home defeat to relegation rivals Wolves last weekend.
Having been outside bets for the title two seasons ago, Gerard Houllier’s men are looking over their shoulder and are having to face up to a genuine battle for Premier League survival.
Of course they would not be the first side to suffer such a dramatic fall from grace. Fans of Leeds United and Blackburn Rovers remain scarred from their own sudden slips down the league ladder and Newcastle United have only just returned from their own downfall in the Championship.
Whereas these other clubs could have seen their slumps coming, Villa fans will struggle to comprehend relegation when the same squad of players reached Wembley twice last season and managed a comfortable top half finish.
Much blame will be attributed to Martin O’Neil’s departure from the Villa hot seat on the eve of the new season, but there is no doubt in the minds of many supporters that the appointment of Houllier has been a backward step for the club.
The Frenchman’s last spell in the Premier League was broadly successful, but by the time he left Liverpool in 2004 he was a figure of frustration for the club’s supporters.
The same can certainly be said for Aston Villa fans at this point in time. Many will struggle to see how a side capable of challenging on multiple fronts last season, have this year struggled to maintain moderate league form.
The FA Cup surrender to Manchester City was a particular stand out for the Villa Park faithful, with such a poor performance it made Crawley Town look like a premiership side when playing Manchester United.
Tony Casacarino claimed in The Times this week that the former French national coach had lost the faith of the dressing room- but is it an accurate picture of a club only two wins outside a place in the top ten?
This campaign has been monumentally disappointing for last year’s Carling Cup finalists, but should Houllier be given the chance to stamp his authority on the Midlands club, or has his tactical and management style been shown up as being outdated? Does he have the hunger and desire to build a team capable of sustained success?
Despite all of this, are Randy Lerner and the rest of the board likely to part company with a manager who has only been in charge at the club since the autumn?
History suggests that a change at this stage is unlikely. Few clubs would dream of giving a new manager such a small window of opportunity to stave off potential relegation. The club have publicly reiterated their support of the under fire Houllier, but concerns must have been expressed privately that in the midst of the closest fought relegation battle in the history of the Premier League, that the squad slip through the trap door, as so many other teams have done down the years.
Looking across the bottom half of the division, it is not hard to pick out at least half a dozen teams you would imagine to be weaker than the current Villa squad. Of course, we have seen similar views expressed previously, only for the most unexpected of teams to slip into the relegation zone but with games against those closest to them on the horizon it certainly appears that the opportunity to rescue themselves from the unthinkable remains in hand.
Nevertheless, with games against Liverpool and Sunderland to come immediately before this, the resolve of the Villa board could be sorely tested if the club arrives at Easter with no further points on the board.