Going fourth

Dave Woodhall talks about Villa’s 4-0 win at Ipswich.

It’s a strange time of the year, so strange in fact that we’ve never experienced anything like it before. Villa went into the game with Ipswich knowing that they’d almost certainly finish the season in fourth place; it’s unlikely that we’ll climb any higher but at the same time we only needed a point to ensure that we’ll have the second leg of the play-offs at home.

It made the build-up to the afternoon seem like a pre-season friendly and Steve Bruce added to the feeling with a line-up that was high on honest pros and workhorses but not quite so blessed with mercurial, match-winning talent. It looked unduly cautious against a team that had been thrown into upheaval with the departure of Mick McCarthy during the week but after a mixed opening fifteen minutes Villa grew into the game and if Conor Hourihane’s opener had a bit of fortune attached when a deflected shot hit the post and came right back to him, unmarked and inside the six yard box, it’s about time we were on the receiving end of such luck.

With an Ipswich player sent off before half-time, the second period should have been an opportunity to make superior numbers tell on the warmest matchday of the year and although the home side had clearly given up long before the final whistle, Villa went about dismantling them with professionalism. You can, as the saying goes, only beat what’s in front of you.

Two goals from Lewis Grabban, who’s increasingly looking like the striker we’ve spent two years and in excess of £30 million searching for, then Henri Lansbury comes off the bench to start and finish off a good move for the fourth. There could have been more, but that would just have been greedy.

So fourth it is, thanks to a win that might have not been against top-level opposition, but was still good enough at the business end of the season to have made the rest of the play-off contenders take note. We’ve got two more league games before the serious business starts and Bruce has a few dilemmas to solve. Given that both games are against teams looking to get into the top six, does he play safe and rest someone like Jack Grealish, whose legs will surely be targeted, or try to keep the recent good run going?

And then there’s the players who have to be fitted in, which itself is a double-edged sword. Getting the balance right will be a tricky business although Villa will surely have an advantage in squad depth. There can’t be another team who can boast the likes of Lansbury, Josh Onomah and Birkir Bjarnason not certain of a starting place in midfield, and with two games in four days fresh legs such as these will come into their own. Equally, John Terry would walk in to any team in the Championship, but with no goals conceded in three games, will he get his place back? Then there’s a whole new dilemma over if and where to play Jonathan Kodjia.

It makes trying to guess what teams will be starting the two league games ahead of the play-offs a bit more interesting. Whether a squad like that should be in the play-offs in the first place is another matter.