Here they are then, Aston Villa.
The last ten games of the season. Nine hundred minutes of football remaining to preserve what has almost been taken for granted: Premier League status. It's been 26 years since Villa were last relegated.
Having failed to take anything from the previous two matches, as expected, with first Arsenal and then Manchester City the opponents, Villa sweat in the bottom three in March. As such, each and every one of these remaining ten games is huge. Ten cup finals, Paul Lambert would no doubt say, but then the Villa manager has been referring to games as 'cup finals' for the past three or four weeks. And Villa still haven't been doing a lot of winning.
- Delph determined to repay Lerner
There could be a worst set of games. Reading, QPR, Liverpool, Stoke, Fulham, Manchester United, Sunderland, Norwich, Chelsea, Wigan. Write off United at Old Trafford straight away. That's on April 22 and, apart from anything else, could be the night United are crowned champions. Chelsea? Villa fans dare not even dream -- still having nightmares dating back to December -- and Liverpool have shown enough of a resurgence in form of late to suggest they'll avenge the defeat they suffered earlier in the season at Anfield.
But the rest? Winnable, you could argue. Even given Villa's mostly feeble form of the last few months. Naturally, however, the eye is drawn to those games against the clubs also fighting relegation. Wigan, on the last day of the season (that could be tasty), QPR on Saturday March 16 and, first up, Reading this Saturday. Cup final is no understatement.
This is big. Villa are 18th, on 24 points. Reading 19th, on 23. Directly above Villa are Wigan, also on 24 points and then Southampton on 27. Above them, upwardly mobile Newcastle on 30, quickly becoming uncatchable. So, unless Southampton find themselves sucked back into it, the likelihood is the bottom four will be cut adrift of the rest and only one of those will stay up. That makes Villa's games against their fellow three relegation candidates unquestionably key to beating the drop.
Despite modest expectations last summer, there won't have been many Villa fans who studied the 2012-13 fixture list and pin-pointed a March trip to Reading as a six pointer. And yet, that is exactly what it is.
Villa won the meeting earlier in the season, an uninspiring affair on a Tuesday night in late November, settled by an 80th-minute Christian Benteke header. Since then, however, and despite losing all the next five after that evening at Villa Park, Reading have taken more points than Villa, albeit from one more league game played; 14 points from 15 games, four wins, two draws and nine defeats against 11 points from 14 games achieved by Lambert's team. That's been earned via two wins, five draws and seven defeats. Villa have scored 15 goals in that time, conceding 31 -- Reading have managed 17 goals and shipped 30. Not much to separate the teams.
Reading's higher points haul owes everything to an inspired sequence of results a month into 2013. The Berkshire boys won three out of four games from the middle of January until the first weekend in February, beating West Brom, Newcastle and Sunderland. The one they didn't win was a 2-2 draw against Chelsea. In fact, if you play with the sequence a little, and take in the last league game of 2012, a 1-0 win over West Ham, it was four wins from six, with a New Year's Day defeat at Spurs also in the mix.
In short, then, Reading have a stronger record over the last couple of months, while Villa have only scratched out that single league win (against West Ham). Encouragement for Lambert, though, will come with the knowledge that the Royals have lost their last three: Stoke, Wigan, Everton. Lambert may hope Reading's purple patch has fizzled out.
Reading will be without Pavel Pogrebnyak, the muscular Russian centre-forward who is serving the second of a three-match ban after his red card against Wigan. Manager Brian McDermott has tended to favour Pogrebnyak as his lone striker. In his absence, Adam Le Fondre will play from kickoff. Le Fondre has the distinction of scoring more league goals (ten) than league starts (nine) this season, and he's made his name as an impact substitute this season. He's an opportunistic kind of forward, and a danger. Had his rasping effort gone in instead of hitting the post early on against Everton last weekend, that outcome could have been very different.
Leggy winger Jimmy Kebe is also expected to miss out with injury, while first choice goalkeeper Adam Federici is a doubt. Villa have a relatively clean bill of health, though Fabian Delph is suspended, and it's not clear whether Ron Vlaar, the defender who began the season with the nickname 'Concrete', yet seems to be anything but given his recent fitness record, will return.
A cup final at the Madjeski Stadium? Maybe just a little bit more important than that.
Here they are then, Aston Villa.