RBM - Aston Villa are up to tenth in the table now. Is that about where you had predicted you'd be this season, or were you expecting something more/less?
AC - This is about where I expected to be in terms of table position (if not a bit higher) but it's a little closer than I'd like to be to the relegation zone in terms of the points gap. Still, it's impossible to argue that there hasn't been some significant improvement shown this season; last year Villa got their 27th point on March 9th, when they were 17th with a -26 goal difference. After the same number of games played, they were 17th with 20 points and a -25 GD. The football hasn't always been great and this team still has some serious issues, but they're a far better side than they were a year ago, and that's about all you can ask with a rebuild of this magnitude.
RBM - Paul Lambert has made some controversial team choices and inflammatory comments regarding the Cup this season. How does the fanbase feel about him?
AC - Thanks to the West Brom win and the improved performances shown against Arsenal and Liverpool that came before it, the pressure on Lambert has eased significantly over the past few weeks. With that being said, there's a significant portion of the fanbase that wants him gone and gone now, and as soon as Villa have their next slip they'll be out in full force once again. The issue is that these are largely the same people that wanted McLeish out, Houllier out, and thought that Martin O'Neill was solely to blame for the club not qualifying for the Champions League; it all gets a bit "Boy Who Cried Wolf" after awhile.
That's not to say there aren't legitimate criticisms to be made of Lambert, because there certainly are. But there's a real sense of entitlement and lack of patience among certain segments of the Villa fanbase, and that's been very much in evidence this season. When Lambert took over the club he and the board made no secret of the fact that this was a long-term project that was going to require patience, and for the most part the fans were understanding of that last season. For whatever reason, it seems like people are no longer accepting of that. It doesn't make a whole lot of sense, but that's sports fandom for you.
RBM - Villa lead the League in not dropping points from winning positions, and are only second in coming back from losing positions. Is this a mindset Lambert is actively cultivating in the side?
AC - I definitely think that it is, and given how huge of a problem Villa's ability to hold leads has been in the recent past it's a very welcome change. A major part of it has been the significant improvement shown by the defense this season, but there's clearly something about the mentality of this club at play; they went through hell and back last season, and I definitely think that helped them mature.
The West Brom game is a great example; last year, it's very hard for me to picture them coming back from 2-0 down, and it's even harder for me to envision them re-taking the lead after West Brom equalized. This team pays with a ton of passion, and that can get them into trouble at times (the number of bookings they've received is fairly indicative of that) but they really do seem to have a never-say-die kind of mentality, which is pretty fun to watch.
RBM - How has the Academy been doing? Who are the players you have identified as potential future stars?
AC - Villa's academy is always under something of a spotlight, and after the club won the NextGen tournament last season the attention kicked up a notch. Graham Burke, Jordan Graham, Samir Carruthers and Michael Drennan are likely the closest to making the jump to the senior squad, while Janoi Donacien already has a few appearances on the bench to his name. The player Villa fans are most excited about at the moment is likely Jack Grealish, who's currently on loan at Notts County, where he's scored 4 times in 19 appearances in his first spell of League football. He's still probably a few years away from being ready for a shot at the first team, but he's definitely worth keeping an eye on.
RBM - Finally, a score prediction for Saturday's game at Goodison? Who are you expecting to shine?
AC - Villa's been playing some pretty decent football this month and Everton looks to have some key injuries that are going to have them well below full strength, but the gap in quality is still pretty significant. Christian Benteke is good enough and Villa's back-line solid enough that there's always a chance of a Villa win no matter who they're playing, but they'll be far from favorites; Fabian Delph is in many ways the key for Villa, and if he can put in the kind of performance he did in Villa's other upset wins it's going to give them a chance. In the end, though, Everton's advantage in midfield if probably too great. I'll say 3-2 to the home side.