Dean Smith must unleash Ross Barkley against Wolverhampton Wanderers a week on Saturday amid reports Aston Villa could welcome the Chelsea loanee back from injury.
Barkley missed the Villans’ 2-1 defeat at West Ham United on Monday night after sustaining a hamstring strain inside the opening minute of last month’s loss at home to Brighton and Hove Albion.
The blow was expected to see the 26-year-old miss two fixtures but could sit out just the Irons affair, after Friday’s clash with Newcastle United was postponed amid an outbreak of coronavirus at the Toon’s Darsley Park training facilities.
Smith will gain the short-term benefit of having longer to prepare for next week’s Midlands Derby with Wolves as a result of Friday’s fixture being pushed back, and could receive some welcome news once Barkley undergoes further assessments on his hamstring injury.
According to the Express and Star, there is a chance the Chelsea midfielder will be passed fit to face Nuno Espirito Santo’s high-flying Wolves, who sit two points above the Villans in seventh ahead of visiting Premier League title-holders Liverpool on Sunday night.
Smith is mindful of the risk in rushing Barkley back from injury ahead of Villa’s packed festive schedule, which sees the Birmingham-based outfit play five games in 16 days between December 12’s derby with Wolves and a trip to Chelsea on the 28th.
Barkley had started Villa’s last six top-flight fixtures and provided a hand in two goals (one scored, one assisted), having taken over duties in midfield from Conor Hourihane.
Smith accepts Hourihane was disappointed with being benched and left to play just 15 minutes before replacing Barkley at West Ham on Monday, but his reasoning for switching the Republic of Ireland international out for the Chelsea talent would justify doing so again at Wolves.
“Conversations can be difficult but if you’re just speaking to the players with honesty then you usually find a way through that,” Smith said, via quotes by BirminghamLive. “I wouldn’t say it’s easy but it’s part and parcel of your job.
“We’d played two, won two and Conor had come off in both games. We signed Ross and I felt we needed to go a different way against Liverpool given who we were playing against. I explained that to Conor and, yes, he was disappointed because he had been involved in the first two games, but we felt we’d brought in a real, high-calibre, different type of player.”
Smith will need to go in a different direction against Wolves than he did against West Ham, with Hourihane offering no tackles, interceptions, clearances, aerial duels won, dribbles attempted or key balls at the London Stadium while directing one of his two shots off target, per WhoScored.
Barkley, meanwhile, continues to rank highest among the Villans’ midfielders for his number of successful dribbles (2.18), shots taken (2.0), key passes (3.09) and second-most final third passes (14.55) per 90 minutes in the Premier League, per SofaScore, despite his injury.