Aston Villa's Expectation Ahead of Liverpool Clash a True Sign of Growth

Sam Tighe@@stighefootballWorld Football Tactics Lead WriterMarch 27, 2013

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - DECEMBER 15:  Christian Benteke of Aston Villa celebrates after scoring the first goal during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Aston Villa at Anfield on  December 15, 2012 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

After what seemed a particularly long international break, Aston Villa return to action on Sunday March 31 at home to Liverpool.

And, in turn, fans' nerves will return to the knife-edge as international woes are replaced by relegation concerns.

The last several weeks have been the kindest of the season to Villa. Wins over West Ham, Reading and QPR along with valiant losses to Arsenal and Manchester City have made Paul Lambert's side one of the form teams in the league.

And it's come at a perfect time. With eight games to go, it's do-or-die time for the Midlands club who face a very real threat of relegation. Villa have been tipped for the drop all season long, but at last show signs of growth and maturity.

The wins over relegation rivals Reading and and QPR were particularly important—not just for the points gap it created, but also for motivational boost it supplied.

So jubilant were the fans after Christian Benteke knocked in the winning goal against Harry Redknapp's men, the car park outside Villa Park was awash with chants and loud music as fans queued to leave.

But all that exhilaration faded when Wigan Athletic knocked a last-minute winner in against Newcastle the very next day, bringing the Latics to within three points of the Villans and with a game still in hand.

Such is the record for Roberto Martinez's side escaping the drop and turning on the style at this time of the year, fans are left believing they need to be above three teams (one of which is not Wigan) to look odds-on for safety.

It's remarkable how high tensions run when you're in a dogfight, and by common consensus this is one of the most wide-open, exciting relegation brawls ever—hardly a comfort for the eight sets of fans still heavily embroiled in it.

So Villa look to the weekend, to the home clash with Liverpool.

A red-hot Luis Suarez, an unknown quantity in Philippe Coutinho and a reborn regista in Steven Gerrard come to Birmingham in an effort to banish failings of their own.

The Reds lost to Southampton (a bad result for Villa) in the last round of fixtures as Brendan Rodgers' squad rotation backfired. Villa cannot hope to be the lucky recipient of this, but do have one gem to hold onto:

December 15, 2012: Liverpool 1-3 Aston Villa.

The Reds fans mutter viciously under their collective breath on recollection of the match, while Villa fans smile fondly at the memory of one of just seven wins this season.

Rodgers has always had a problem when he meets Lambert, and the Scot has outfoxed his opposite number several times before.

Last season, as Norwich manager, Lambert beat Rodgers' Swansea 3-1 at home and 3-2 away. He made it three-from-three in the Premier League in December, and some will believe he can make it four-from-four.

But at this stage it's about holding your nerve. The home support and large crowd against QPR made the difference for the side in B6, and the stands will be praying for another almighty performance from Benteke the beast.

Such is the good vein of form Villa are in, a loss would be a genuine disappointment—this is a real sign of growth for the young crop in claret and blue.