If the events of the last couple of days are anything to go by, it could be a long and wearying summer for Villa fans. In the space of the last 48 hours or so, some Christian Benteke developments: he wants to leave, to join Arsenal; he's happy at Villa, at least for another season, in preparation for the 2014 World Cup; he's so happy at Villa, in fact, he's plotting a secret plan to convince international teammate Romelu Lukaku to come and join him in the claret and blue. - Benteke 'disgusted' by Arsenal reports Is anything of this actually true?
In one of the least surprising items of Villa news in the past year, Richard Dunne has left the club. He will surely be followed by other senior members of the squad, as Villa's mission statement of overhauling the playing staff continues into the close season period. A decision on Dunne was straightforward, and entirely expected. The final 12 months of the four-year contract he signed in August 2009 passed by rather uneventfully, in terms of actually playing football, at least: Dunne failed to make a single appearance for the senior side or any other team at the club throughout the whole season.
The relegation six-pointer that never was. Sunday's match could have been one of excruciating tension for Villa, the last hurdle needing to be cleared before confirming Premier League survival. Instead, with insurmountable daylight between Villa and Wigan, it was only ever going to be one of those routine, season-ending affairs. So it proved, with both sides serving up an entertaining 2-2 draw at the DW Stadium. Villa's performance, it has to be said, was indicative of the good and bad they have delivered for much of the campaign.
A genuinely new selection dilemma to occupy Paul Lambert's thoughts ahead of the final match of the Premier League season, away to Wigan. Suspension will deprive the Villa manager of the services of Christian Benteke, making the big striker unavailable for the first time this season. - Lambert to hold critical Benteke talks Benteke has played every league match -- starting 32, appearing as a substitute twice -- since making his debut against Swansea in September, Villa's fourth game of the campaign: 34 out of 34.
Villa players learned their Premier League status was secured for another season without even kicking a ball, no doubt watching Wigan's 4-1 defeat to Arsenal from the comfort of their own homes. After seeing Wigan draw level through former Villan Shaun Maloney right on halftime, there was understandable relief when the Gunners coasted clear with three second half goals. The way the game petered out almost casually was in stark contrast to the heightened sense of anxiety the Villa contingent would have been feeling during both the build-up to the game, and throughout the first half.
So close. So close to being the perfect finale to a season of trials and tribulations, with Villa on the brink of victory against Chelsea Saturday until Frank Lampard stole the show with two second-half goals, sealing a 2-1 win for the visitors. Lampard, of course, has made a career out of bagging important goals, and plenty of them; his two at Villa Park made him Chelsea's all-time leading scorer. But Villa, if not in control, certainly had the upper hand in this game until, in a tempestuous second half, Christian Benteke was sent off for his second yellow card of the day.
Wigan are widely acknowledged as masters of the great escape, on account of their relegation-defying performances in recent seasons. It's a well-deserved label, given the sticky situations Latics have wriggled clear of. But while Roberto Martinez's men have two more league games standing between them and Premier League survival, they may already have been usurped as escapologists. Villa's recovery from a miserable first half of the season has been little short of remarkable, and somewhat overlooked.
So far, so good. It's been a productive week for Villa. Successive fixtures against Sunderland and Norwich always had the look of holding the key to Premier League survival, with six valuable points at stake. Studiously crunching the numbers, and calculating the odds, four would have been a decent return, verging on safety -- six, a result of winning both, would surely have clinched top-flight football again next season. Villa have done exactly that. Successive victories, eight goals scored and two against.
Norwich City versus Aston Villa at Carrow Road in the Premier League: It was this exact fixture, almost precisely 12 months ago to the day, that set in motion the chain of events which culminated in Paul Lambert swapping Norfolk for Birmingham. - Benteke backed to score more May 13, 2012: a sunny afternoon, and the final day of the league season. There was nothing at stake for either club, but no mistaking the contrasting spirits of the two teams which took the field. Norwich were bright and busy, eager to conclude an encouraging return to the top flight on a high note.
A marvellous, uplifting night at Villa Park as a tense relegation clash was transformed into a showboating six-goal victory. It was the kind of win, and performance, that Villa fans have craved for so long during this most turbulent of seasons that the second half of Monday night's 6-1 success over Sunderland unfolded in giddy excitement -- a display of breathless attacking football, unrelenting pressure and, above all else, goal after goal. - Match report: Aston Villa 6-1 Sunderland - Brassell: Villa find their inner Di Canio Christian Benteke was the headline-writing hero with a second half hat trick, but he was far from alone in rising to the occasion.
So Paolo Di Canio, we meet again. Villa have previous with Sunderland's new manager, having overcome a testing night at Swindon at the end of October 2012, a pulsating League Cup tie which was won 3-2 with a 90th-minute goal from Christian Benteke. Villa had been 2-0 up in that game -- two goals up at half-time -- and coasting to a routine victory until Swindon's Miles Storey scored twice to remind the Premier League club that the job hadn't been completed. Benteke duly did exactly that in the closing minutes, but the dramatic finale did not end at the final whistle.
The reappearance of Karim El Ahmadi as a half-time substitute at Old Trafford, his first in a Villa shirt since his 13 minutes against Liverpool on the last day of March, was a mild surprise on Monday. Given the circumstances of the game, with Villa 3-0 down to a rampant Manchester United, El Ahmadi, very much a holding midfielder whose natural position sees him maintain a presence in and around the centre circle, would be one of the last players one would have imagined manager Paul Lambert to turn to.