Aston Villa v Tottenham: There’s not a Houll lot of cheer in the Midlands

VILLA fans probably saw it coming in the summer but, as their fears become a sobering reality, that is probably little comfort this Christmas.

Having been the biggest challenger to the top four in 2008/09, leading Arsenal by 10 points in February, there is little doubt that the Villans have since gone backwards.

While Spurs have reaped the benefits of sustained investment in the first team, Villa’s American owner Randy Lerner has tightened the purse strings, and consequently seen his side tumble down the top flight.

The portents for this season looked glum as soon as the Midlanders cashed in on James Milner in the summer and declined to spend the �26million fee – manager Martin O’Neill was next through the exit door.

Gerard Houllier belatedly took over on September 21 and, three months on, Villa sit four points above the drop zone.

If supporters are concerned, they will be even more alarmed by their festive fixture list – Villa host Spurs on Boxing Day before travelling to Manchester City and then Chelsea.

Fans will not be confident of taking anything from those away days, having seen their side lose six of their eight league games on the road – including their 2-1 defeat at Spurs.

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Villa have taken just four points from a possible 24 away from home, following a season when they won more league games away (nine) from home than they did at Villa Park (eight).

Unfortunately, none of this will help Tottenham, because their opponents have been strong at home.

In fact, Villa have mirrored Spurs’ own home form exactly – both sides have won four, drawn four and lost one in the top flight, scoring 10 goals each.

And, although Houllier’s side were defeated 4-2 by Arsenal in Birmingham, they held Chelsea to a goalless draw in October and drew 2-2 with Manchester United in November – having led 2-0, it has to be said.

There has been a youthful and inexperienced look to Villa of late, due to a spate of injuries that have robbed Houllier of virtually every member of his first team at some point.

The Frenchman signed his countryman Robert Pires, the former Arsenal midfielder, last month but the 37-year-old looks past his best and is yet to play more than 45 minutes in a game.

Instead, Houllier has been forced to delve into his youth team and push unknown youngsters into the spotlight.

Marc Albrighton, 21, has looked comfortable in the top flight all season, but Jonathan Hogg, 22, Chris Herd, 21, and Barry Bannan, 21, have all been thrown into the firing line ahead of their time – as have defenders Ciaran Clark, 21, and Eric Lichaj, 22.

It has been a similar story up front, with 19-year-old Nathan Delfouneso making eight top-flight appearances to replace the injured Gabriel Agbonlahor, Emile Heskey and John Carew – who should all be available.

The verdict: Like Chelsea, Villa will have key players returning for their meeting with Tottenham and they can hold Spurs to a draw.

Prediction: 1-1, just like last season.