To give themselves any realistic chance of mounting a bid for survival in the second half of the season, bottom club Aston Villa must take a reasonable haul of points from the next three games, beginning with a home clash against West Ham United on Boxing Day.
This meeting with the out-of-form Londoners precedes trips to fellow strugglers Norwich City and Sunderland, so Remi Garde badly needs to end his wait for a first win in charge sooner rather than later if the club is to avoid being cast even further adrift. The gap currently stands at some nine points, and judging by how they have performed throughout this term, it is difficult to see what can possibly inspire such a dramatic turnaround.
They managed to come away with a point last weekend at Newcastle United having fallen behind, with Jordan Ayew capping a fine individual display with a sublime goal to level things up in the second half. Few players deserve credit from Villa’s miserable campaign so far, but the Ivorian has at least shown some flashes of quality, and will be central to his side’s chances of getting the result they need here. Where they may lose out, however, is the midfield battle where West Ham’s nous could prove telling.
It is now seven games and two months since the Hammers last tasted victory, so there are plenty of reasons why they will also to be desperate to come out on top in this one. The main reason for that is a succession of injuries to key players, but despite their malaise they are still not too far off the Champions League places and a good run during the festive period would bring them back into contention.
With late withdrawal Andy Carroll the latest to be struck down, Nikica Jelavic was given his first Premier League start for West Ham for the game at Swansea City on Sunday, but was forced to feed off scraps as his side spent much of the game on the defensive. It was a match that lacked quality and somewhat predictably ended goalless, badly missing the invention that would have been provided by somebody such as Dimitri Payet or Manuel Lanzini.
Aston Villa are likely to still be without skipper Micah Richards, who has missed the last three matches through injury.
Carroll may return for West Ham, but they are still without a number of first-team players including Victor Moses, Winston Reid and Diafra Sakho.
Last Meeting: A narrow win in this fixture back in May was enough to all but guarantee safety for Aston Villa, as Tom Cleverley sealed victory just after the half hour mark with his third goal in as many games. The on-loan midfielder scored from close range after being set up by Jack Grealish, and the hosts managed to hold on despite Enner Valencia seeing a second half goal disallowed.
Played for both – Carlton Cole: Capped seven times by England, striker Cole enjoyed a nine-year association with West Ham up until the end of last season, helping them to three top half finishes in scoring 35 goals in 170 Premier League games for the club. Before all of that, he spent the 2005-06 season on loan at Villa Park, where he managed only three goals in 27 appearances.