If West Ham United are going to return to the Europa League or aspire to a Champions League spot, they must take advantage of a soft patch of schedule that starts Tuesday at Upton Park against last-place Aston Villa.
The Hammers (9-9-5) are one point behind fifth-place Manchester United, which carries direct Europa League qualification, and six adrift of fourth-place Tottenham Hotspur. Despite having an FA Cup replay added to their schedule following a 0-0 draw at Liverpool on Saturday, there are points to be had for West Ham, who play three of the four worst teams in the table in their four league matches this month and can do the double over streaking Southampton in the other.
Manager Slaven Bilic accepted the Hammers' fate for the fourth-round replay, with second-choice keeper Darren Randolph making a succession of quality saves to preserve the scoreline.
"We didn't deserve more than a replay tonight, but we also deserved it because we defended really well," the manager told West Ham's official website. "They had a few moments, we had a few moments. From my point of view there were a few moments when we missed the final ball to put us in a great position."
Randolph, who has kept four consecutive clean sheets in all competitions, had a triple save in the second half - twice thwarting Christian Benteke in that sequence. He may also make his first league start for the Hammers since beating Newcastle United on Sept. 14 because starting netminder Adrian returned to Seville to be with his wife, who gave birth to the couple's first child.
"We defended, we knew we had to do that at this stage in the game, we did that, got the draw and now it's back to Upton Park for the replay," Randolph said post-match to BT Sport.
Bilic does have some injury concerns since James Tomkins and Cheikhou Kouyate left with first-half injuries. On the positive side, Joey O'Brien made his first Hammers appearance since last July due to an ankle injury. The Ireland international is vying with newcomer Sam Byram for time with the first team.
Rooted to the bottom of the table on 13 points, Aston Villa (2-7-14) have 15 matches to overcome a 10-point deficit to safety after absorbing a 4-0 thrashing at home by Manchester City on Saturday that crushed any dreams of returning to the FA Cup final for a second straight year.
The defeat ended a five-match unbeaten run for the Villans, whose plight as a team fighting to avoid relegation for the first time in the Premier League era is both dire and well-established. Manager Remi Garde is hoping for reinforcements before the transfer window closes, but he's also concerned the heavy loss may add to the already-intense pressure weighing on his players.
"We lost 4-0 - let's say it's a bit severe concerning the game we had," Garde said. "We need to stick together the last 15 games. It's not time to say, 'It's your fault or it's my fault.'"
Libor Kozak and Rudy Gestede both missed the match after picking up knocks in a scoreless draw at West Bromwich Albion on Jan. 23, and Garde is hoping at least one of them will be available.
Villa's defence, though, may be in for a torrid time if Hammers striker Enner Valencia picks up where he left off in league play. The Ecuador international had a brace on Jan. 23 in a 2-2 draw against Man City, who enjoyed having teenage striker Kelechi Iheanacho tear Villa's backline asunder with a hat trick Saturday.
The Hammers settled for a 1-1 Boxing Day draw in the reverse fixture, with Jordan Ayew's penalty canceling Aaron Cresswell's marker in first-half stoppage time. West Ham have one win (1-3-2) in their last six top-flight matches between the clubs, and the last two matches at Upton Park ended scoreless.