Defeated and deflated, worried and wearied, Aston Villa found themselves overhauled by Arsenal and overwhelmed by Tottenham within the space of 24 hours. It equated to a double dose of capital punishment for Martin O'Neill's men, though a stiffer penalty may await. After spending three months in the top four, they must resurrect their challenge for the Champions League places.
To do that, in their own assessment, they require something from their next two matches. And they are away at Anfield and Old Trafford respectively. "We have two tough fixtures coming up and if we deliver a performance of the season against one of them, it could catapult us to a good finish," said the acting captain Gareth Barry. If it appeared wishful thinking, a more honest admission from the midfielder followed: "We are low on confidence."
That was apparent. They are suffering from mental and physical fatigue. Eight months after their campaign began in the much-mocked Intertoto Cup, Villa's season has stalled. A side noted normally for their pace and persistence now appear to possess neither reserves of energy or reserves with energy. That Villa, who have used the fewest players in the Premier League - Nathan Delfouneso became just their 20th - were beaten 2-1 by a Tottenham team who have deployed the most (30) may be significant. Villa's is a slender squad, exacerbating a reliance upon their talismen.
Gabriel Agbonlahor, however, has only scored in one of his last 15 appearances. Where he once epitomised the fearlessness of O'Neill's ingénues, now he is the subject of the supporters' unrest. His replacement by Delfouneso was greeted with rather too much enthusiasm for O'Neill's liking. "That was no way for the fans to treat him," he added. However, there is a case for promoting John Carew from the bench. The Norwegian looks Villa's likeliest scorer and mustered their consolation goal in his cameo.
Tottenham, who struck after four minutes of each half through Jermaine Jenas and Darren Bent, are almost safe, though that is hardly grounds for celebration. As Jenas said: "We have been underperforming all year and it's only the last few months we have shown what we are about." Nevertheless, the side that managed a mere two points from their first eight games are eyeing up seventh place. The excellent Jonathan Woodgate added: "We've got a chance [of Europe] but let's not get carried away."
Indeed, it is not beyond the realms of possibility that, after wildly contrasting seasons, both Spurs and Villa will make a swift return to the Uefa Cup, albeit in its new guise as the Europa League. Villa had their sights set on the premier continental competition. Barry added: "If you look at the bigger picture, it will be a disappointment but we are not writing ourselves off." firstname.lastname@example.org