Southampton-Aston Villa Preview
It turns out relegation was just half of the embarrassment. Two days after Aston Villa assured themselves their first fall in the Premier League era, off-the-field headlines started further muddying the on-field squalor.
The former is certainly just gaining steam with a trying year ahead, while the latter figures to continue Saturday against Southampton. The Saints visit Villa Park with a shot at handing a Premier League apparition a 10th straight loss.
The long-in-the-making drop was clinched with Saturday's 1-0 loss to Manchester United. Villa had been one of seven clubs to remain in the Premier League since its inception in 1992-93, having last been relegated from English football's top flight in 1987 and returning immediately after a season in the second tier.
"The players are devastated obviously," acting manager Eric Black told the club's official website. "It's been coming, we know that. But once the 'R' is against your name, it's difficult. It's been difficult for everyone at the club."
The immediate fallout has been less predictable. To start, Villa (3-7-24) have suspended striker Gabriel Agbonlahor following reports of his behaviour after the loss. The 29-year-old forward was pictured in The Sun newspaper with what looked like nitrous oxide - or laughing gas - canisters at a London hotel. The incident reportedly occurred on the same night Villa were relegated at Old Trafford, and the club released a statement acknowledging the suspension but offering no further comment until the completion of an investigation.
Agbonlahor did not play against United because the club said he was not in shape. Last week, he was put on a personal fitness program having managed one goal in 18 matches across all competitions.
Also piled on is the sudden resignation of two directors after relegation was sealed. Mervyn King, a former Bank of England governor, has left after only two months and ex-English Football Association chairman David Bernstein exits after barely five weeks. Both departures were confirmed Monday by the club's official website amid a fallout with owner Randy Lerner, and it's surely only the start in player and personnel turnover as the Championship looms.
"People in certain places will make sure Villa come back. I am sure that's the case. I am really confident in that," Black said. "That process has to start now. We have to get on with it now and ensure that this fantastic football club goes back to where it should be and this never happens again."
Avoiding nine-match losing streaks would be a good start. That's where the Villans are - two matches beyond their previous worst run of form in the Premier League era - and the only club to lose 10 or more straight Premier League matches was Sunderland's 20 spanning two disjointed seasons. The Black Cats lost 15 straight to end 2002-03 on their way to a 19-point relegation. They returned in 2005-06 and lost their first five.
Villa still need four points to pass 2009-10 Portsmouth's 19 for the worst total since 2007-08 Derby County's 11 marked the worst season in Premier League history. That Derby County team were also the last side to lose 25 top-flight matches in a season.
While Villa started hinting at this fall in recent seasons, Southampton (14-9-11) have trended the other way. The Saints finished a club-best seventh last season on 60 points and are there again on 51 points with four matches to continue the upward trajectory. But with next weekend's trip to Manchester City followed by hosting title hopefuls Tottenham Hotspur, now's the time to secure three of those necessary points.
Ronald Koeman's club clawed back for split points in Saturday's 1-1 draw at Everton on Sadio Mane's 76th-minute equaliser.
"If you're 1-0 down and you lose the game it's still more disappointing, and at least it's one point, but at this stage in the season you need more," Koeman told Southampton's official YouTube channel.
But they've lost only once in their last six (3-2-1) and are 8-3-3 with 11 goals conceded dating to a 2-0 win over Watford on Jan. 13, and the Dutch manager still isn't counting out a return to continental football after a brief Europa League residency in August.
"It's difficult. You have to wait about other results, and still this week on Tuesday and Wednesday you have more games of opponents close to us and above us, but for sure the next one - Aston Villa - is very crucial for Europe," he said.
And looking back, so may be dropped points in the reverse fixture as the clubs drew 1-1 on Dec. 5 at St Mary's Stadium after eliminating the Villans from the League Cup 2-1 on Oct. 28, also at home. The Saints are unbeaten in the last five (2-3-0) meetings on a 10-4 aggregate.