Aston Villa’s next five fixtures will tell us if they really are promotion contenders

With Steve Bruce at the helm and after keeping all of their key players at the club during the summer transfer window and adding the likes of John Terry, Glenn Whelan and Robert Snodgrass (later in August) to their squad, it was no surprise that Aston Villa were installed as one of the pre-season automatic promotion favourites this term.

Villa would have hoped to make an instant return to the Premier League last season but they never recovered from the poor start that saw Roberto Di Matteo sacked and replaced by Bruce in October, eventually finishing in 13th position in the Championship standings.

Ending the campaign 18 points from the play-off positions, the former Hull City boss knew that he had a lot of work to do during the off-season to ensure that his team got off to a positive start.

However the Midlands outfit won just one of their opening seven league fixtures of the current season, which was a disappointing return for everyone connected with the club and would have seen some of the supporters start to question their manager.

It meant that they were in 18th position going into their match against Barnsley at Oakwell on September 16 and with the pressure beginning to build on Bruce, he opted to select a more traditional 4-4-2 formation.

The decision paid off as Villa ran out comfortable 3-0 winners, and the return of Jonathan Kodjia from injury and Albert Adomah to the starting line-up have coincided with the side going on to win their next three Championship fixtures too, against Burton Albion, Nottingham Forest and Bolton Wanderers last time out.

While the Midlands outfit have moved up to seventh in the table as a result, the fact that three of those four successive victories have come against teams currently in the bottom seven suggest that no one can afford to get carried away just yet.

When you look at Villa’s upcoming fixtures – and in particular the next five – you get the feeling that we are really about to see whether they are genuine automatic promotion contenders or not.

First up is a trip to Molineux to face in-form Wolverhampton Wanderers on Saturday, and it is a huge test considering they have lost just once in their last seven Championship matches in a run that has included four wins.

Like Villa also did last month, Wolves ran out 4-0 winners against Burton Albion at the Pirelli Stadium last time out and with only Hull City, Bristol City and Ipswich Town scoring more than the 19 goals they have plundered in 11 league games this term, they also look to be a huge threat to Steve Bruce’s side’s defence.

The fact that the visitors will be missing a key member of their backline in left-back Neil Taylor through suspension is undoubtedly a huge blow, especially with the Villa backline set to come up against the likes of Diogo Jota, Helder Costa, Ruben Neves and Leo Bonatini for the hosts.

It is the sort of fixture that Bruce would probably be happy with a point from on paper, but it is also an opportunity to send out a message to the rest of the Championship that Villa mean business this season after such a disappointing campaign last term.

Following the trip to Molineux the Midlands outfit play host to 10th-placed Fulham, who are yet to hit the heights that saw them reach the play-offs last season despite winning four of their last seven league games.

While that match will be tough, the following week Villa face arch-rivals Birmingham City at St Andrew’s in what is sure to be a feisty and difficult encounter.

Villa may not see the 22nd-placed Blues as promotion rivals right now, but you never know what is going to happen in a derby match and it is certainly another test of Bruce’s side’s credentials with Steve Cotterill only recently taking the reins at their local neighbours.

A trip to Preston North End, who currently have the strongest defence in the division and are situated in the top six, comes three days later, before they host Sheffield Wednesday – who like Fulham were beaten in the play-off semi-finals last season – at Villa Park on November 4.

This next run of five fixtures may not be season-defining, but it will certainly let us see if Villa truly are the real deal.

To be automatic promotion contenders you need to be picking up positive results against the likes of Wolves, Fulham and Preston rather than just Burton and Bolton, with all due respect, when you have squad like Villa do.