Derby day in the Midlands

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC/Getty ImagesPaul Lambert's Aston Villa will have the primetime billing on Monday night when they face Midlands neighbours West Brom.

As if to emphasise the significance of the occasion, Villa's match against near neighbours West Bromwich Albion is on Monday night. Set apart from the rest of the Premier League weekend, the fixture is guaranteed to command full attention.

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With Birmingham and Wolves dropping out of the Premier League in recent seasons, Villa's games against West Brom are those which re-kindle local rivalry; encounters with a little extra spice and fire. Historically, Villa have the edge in terms of overall head-to-head record, and also on the trophy count, but in recent seasons Albion have enjoyed the better of it. For the past two seasons, West Brom have finished higher in the table than Villa: 10th against 16th in 2011-12, and eighth against 15th in 2012-13.

Games have been tight. The last three matches have all been draws: 0-0, 1-1, and 2-2. The last game in that sequence was an opportunity missed for Villa. Paul Lambert's side led 2-0 at the Hawthorns in January, only for the hosts to haul themselves back to take a point with a late Peter Odemwingie goal. It was a performance which typified Villa at the time -- exciting and penetrative going forward, missing several great chances in the first half to take total control of the match, but culpable defensively.

Lambert's team has evolved since then -- currently not so effective in attacking areas, but recognisably improved in defence. Villa will go to the Hawthorns with the second best defensive record away from home in the league. Visits to Norwich, Hull and West Ham have all resulted in clean sheets. Albion can expect stout resistance from Villa's rather mean defence on Monday night.

This one is difficult to call. West Brom are a smart side, well drilled and efficient by Steve Clarke. Though they are not perhaps as clinical in front of goal as last season when they benefited from having Romelu Lukaku on loan from Chelsea, they have impact players. When Stephane Sessegnon is good, he's very good, but also quite capable of switching from the sublime to the ridiculous, and Villa will hope he has one of his off days.

Morgan Amalfitano, the French winger, looks a talent and potentially one of the bargains of the season since arriving on loan from Marseille. Equally, Saido Berahino could be judged a real discovery, an exciting youngster just beginning to establish himself with Albion. Clarke has tended to keep him out of the line-up for the majority of the season, picking him from the start just twice. Berahino, who has five further appearances as a substitute, does have two league goals to his name, though.

In fact, between them, Amalfitano, Berahino and Sessegnon have six Premier League goals. Midfielders James Morrison and Claudio Yacob have one each. Central defender Gareth McAuley has two, the former Villa man Liam Ridgewell, Albion's left-back, has one. West Brom share the goals around evenly. This also highlights the lack of a regular goal-scoring centre-forward. Neither Nicolas Anelka, Victor Anichebe or Matej Vydra have scored in the league this season. The only striker who has is Shane Long, who did so with a header in Albion's last game, that controversial 2-2 draw at Chelsea.

Albion's strengths lie in an industrious and creative midfield, and also a settled defence. Selection dilemmas haven't been an issue for Clarke when it comes to his back four. He's been able to field almost exactly the same quartet for all 11 matches. Only right-back Billy Jones has missed a game, dropping out against Chelsea. Elsewhere, Jonas Olsson, McAuley and Ridgewell have been ever presents. West Brom have had to field their second choice goalkeeper, Boaz Myhill -- another ex-Villan -- for most of the season though, with Ben Foster injured.

For Villa, it's all about the injuries in the build-up to this one. Or, more accurately, how many of those players unfit in recent weeks are available. Christian Benteke, who missed Belgium's midweek friendly with a knee injury, is expected to make it, so too Andreas Weimann and Antonio Luna -- both players were absent from the Villa side which beat Cardiff 2-0. Luna, who wasn't part of the squad for the trip to West Ham the week before that, will surely slot straight in at left-back, and Lambert will probably find room for Weimann, though the Austrian's pre-injury form was a concern, and Libor Kozak, his replacement, was reasonably effective against Cardiff.

Lambert will be hoping Fabian Delph, who has just celebrated his 24th birthday, can come back into the side after also missing the last two, first with an illness and then a knee injury, but Gabby Agbonlahor is expected to again remain on the sidelines, which is disappointing. Of all the players in Villa's squad, no-one relishes these derby day occasions more than the striker, who seems to thrive on the special tension and atmosphere such fixtures generate. Agbonlahor has scored seven goals in West Midlands derbies - against West Brom, Birmingham and Wolves -- and Monday's game is one he'd hate to miss.

Of course, while Agbonlahor is something of an old hand when it comes to derby games, several of his team-mates could be experiencing this fixture for the first time. Leandro Bacuna, Aleksandar Tonev, Nicklas Helenius, Luna and Kozak are all new to Villa this season, and therefore new to the importance of Midlands rivalry.

For them, Monday night could be some eye-opener. The outcome is hard to predict but it's guaranteed to be a cold evening, with no warm welcome for Villa's players -- plenty of bite both in the air and on the field. There's barely anything to separate Villa and West Brom in the league table -- 11th and 10th, level on points with goal difference providing the gap -- and the football will be just as keenly contested for 90 minutes at the Hawthorns.


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