On a plinth at the mouth of the tunnel at Villa Park stands a replica of the most coveted trophy in club football. Aston Villa lifted the European Cup in 1982 and this season they have decided to shout about it again.
Unai Emery’s men will set a club record 15 consecutive home wins in the league if they take six points from their next two matches in front of their own supporters. The one slight problem is that their opponents are champions Manchester City tonight and leaders Arsenal on Saturday.
That would have felt a near-impossible task before Emery took control and while Villa will be underdogs in both matches, they have no reason to feel intimidated. That is partly why the club felt confident enough to bring back the visual reminder of the European Cup this season.
The trophy has become a symbol of Villa’s rediscovered confidence in front of their own supporters, which has been building ever since their last defeat on home turf – February 18, when Arsenal won 4-2 at Villa Park and Emery castigated his players.
‘Very frustrated, embarrassing to lose like that in front of our supporters,’ said Emery. ‘The performances can’t continue like that.’ It is fair to say his words were heeded.
Aston Villa are flying and have won their last 13 straight league matches at Villa Park
Unai Emery has transformed the Midlands club since taking charge just over a year ago
Villa face the ultimate litmus test when they take on champions Man City tonight
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The sequence of home wins has been spectacular yet it cannot be attributed to the players travelling together to Villa Park by coach, or meeting at a hotel on the morning of a match – measures that were adopted by Emery’s predecessors too.
More accurately, it is simply a product of the remarkable levels of detail explored by Emery and the ferocious demands he makes on his squad.
During sessions at the club’s Bodymoor Heath training base, Emery will sometimes physically move his players so they are standing in exactly the position he wants when practising set pieces.
‘Not here! Here!’ the Spaniard will urge, until his players are arranged precisely how he wishes. Under previous managers, players were not expected to hang around at Bodymoor for long after training was complete. The afternoon is a golden time for Emery, however, who holds collective and individual meetings with players and illustrates his points using clips on an iPad.
Villa will also face Mikel Arteta’s Arsenal on Saturday, as they prepare for a testing few days
Walk into Emery’s office at Bodymoor and he is usually poring over his laptop, analysing opponents and dissecting what might be improved from previous games.
As he considered the meeting with Pep Guardiola’s side, which he says will be Villa’s toughest test of the campaign so far, Emery was unusually expansive on what he expects.
‘Players can always improve – and they can improve their attitudes too, if they want to sacrifice their lives thinking more about football,’ said Emery. ‘It’s not only when they’re at the training ground. It’s important they have this attitude when they are at home in their private lives as well.
‘I am never going to be a policeman behind them in their private lives. But what is completely necessary for me is that football is the priority.
Emery is constantly looking to improve his players, and wants them to own their mistakes like Emiliano Martinez (pictured) did following his error in last month’s defeat at Nottingham Forest
‘Your lifestyle outside the club is reflected inside. The mentality is to think football and show high commitment to your club and your team-mates.
‘For example, Emiliano Martinez is playing very well but sometimes he can make some mistakes as he did against Nottingham Forest (where Villa were beaten 2-0 last month). He was the first before any of the other players to own up to it.
‘We support every player when they make mistakes and they are being mature and responsible to accept them. It’s important for them to be responsible and mature in their private lives as well.’
Whatever happens against City and Arsenal, Villa Park is a fortress again. For now the European Cup remains the most glorious element of Villa’s past yet if Emery is able to realise his ambitions here, it will quickly become a part of their present too.