A tale of two wingers could well be decisive in how the season pans out for Aston Villa and Tottenham. As Stewart Downing re-produces the form that made him England's great hope on the left flank, the injured Aaron Lennon has only a watching brief. It is a situation that creates a mood of delight and despair in the two camps as they aim to gain some reward for a promising campaign.Both are chasing a top four spot in the Premier League and have the FA Cup within their sights.
Villa entertain Crystal Palace in tonight's fifth round replay, while Spurs welcome Bolton. For Villa, Downing has been a notable influence during their recent 11-match unbeaten run. A broken foot ruled him out of the start of the season, but he is getting fitter and playing better with every game, according to Martin O'Neill, his manager. Teammate Ashley Young added: "Stewart is a top-class player who settled in straight away. He had been out for a long while, but I don't think it has looked like he has been out for that long."
Ironically, Downing almost went to Spurs last summer, but Middlesbrough's £15 million (Dh85.2m) valuation was too high. Villa got him for £3m less and it has proved an astute piece of business. Should Downing maintain his form, a World Cup call could beckon. He won the last of his 22 caps a year ago, but is now a contender for this summer's finals. It might be at the expense of the unfortunate Lennon, who has suffered another setback with the groin problem that has ruled him out since December.
While Spurs should be too strong for Bolton without him, Harry Redknapp will need Lennon back for more exacting tests to come. "Hopefully it will get sorted out and he will be back soon," said the Spurs manager. "So long as he gets back and gets enough match action for Tottenham to take us where we want to go, then the World Cup will follow. But, first and foremost, we have to get him back playing for Tottenham."
The World Cup is in the back of Ashley Young's mind too. With the Carling Cup final against Manchester United on Sunday, the Villa right-winger has his eye on double cup glory. "I think with the run we've been on, we go into every game thinking we are going to win it, with the cup runs and the league form," he said.
Watch Aston Villa v Crystal Palace, KO midnight, Al Jazeera Sport +1
Tottenham v Bolton, KO midnight, Al Jazeera Sport +2