Villa's away form tested at Southampton

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Getty ImagesStar striker Christian Benteke has not scored for Aston Villa since mid-September.

There's no real doubt about it. Villa are definitely happier playing away from home. The kind of form which has seen Paul Lambert's team defeated just once in the league this season on the road means Villa shouldn't be overawed by this Wednesday's difficult trip to Southampton.

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Overawed by a visit to St Mary's. Who would have imagined that a couple of years ago a visit to Southampton would have been considered such a challenge? That this is now one of the toughest places in the Premier League to go speaks volumes for the impressive, and frankly very fast, progress of the South Coast club.

Progress which, in light of Lambert's comments earlier this week, puts Villa's own development into perspective. While Villa, as Lambert insisted, are taking steady (if slow) steps towards the top half of the Premier League table, and improving season on season, Saints have made rapid, sizeable strides.

They've been on an upward curve since regaining a place in the top flight in 2012-13, and have assumed the label of the season's surprise package, sitting in seventh position, ahead of both Manchester United and Tottenham, and six points superior to Villa.

Less of a transition, more a transformation. Started by Nigel Adkins and continued, significantly, by Mauricio Pochettino.

Last season, this fixture actually marked the beginning of Southampton's improvement, and betrayed the inherent weaknesses at Villa, setting the tone for a miserable few months. In September 2012, the Midlanders went to St Mary's off the back of beating Swansea at home, and before that, taking a point at Newcastle. Saints had lost the first four games of the season. At half-time, Villa led 1-0 through Darren Bent; Southampton scored four times in the second half -- Rickie Lambert got two.

The 4-1 defeat was a dose of unwelcome reality for Villa, and perhaps even accelerated Lambert's plans for change. As well as Bent, Barry Bannan, Brett Holman and Stephen Ireland all started in that match, a group now consigned to the annals of club history. The malaise which set in afterwards continued into January, when Southampton came to Villa Park and won 1-0 with a Lambert penalty, awarded after Jay Rodriguez tumbled rather easily; Saints weren't exactly Villa's favourite opponents during the previous campaign.

Given the aftermath of that second defeat, Villa did well to finish the season with the same points tally, 41, as a Southampton side which looked, at one stage, as if it would move clear. This season, it has. Saints have lost their previous two -- against Arsenal and Chelsea -- but are unbeaten at home, and defeated Hull 4-1 in their previous home contest.

That said, both Sunderland and West Ham have come away from St Mary's with a point, and Villa have only been beaten once away from home, at Stamford Bridge. The big issue remains scoring goals. Villa have fired a blank in five of the last seven matches (though the return looks stronger if the last three games are taken into account; Villa have scored four times), and while the poor form of Christian Benteke is the hot talking point, it's unfair for the Belgian to shoulder the full burden. Libor Kozak is the only Villa striker to have scored a goal in the last two calendar months.

There's every chance Lambert will leave Benteke out against Southampton, acknowledging the fact his top goalscorer is struggling -- "not up to scratch" as the manager put it in the wake of last Saturday's 0-0 with Sunderland. It's a tricky balancing act: giving a player low on confidence, and only recently recovered from injury, a rest, but running the risk of damaging that confidence further by relegating him to the bench.

At least Lambert has the benefit of options if he chooses to take Benteke out of the firing line: Kozak, Gabby Agbonlahor, Andreas Weimann, and two strikers currently on the fringes of the squad, Nicklas Helenius and Jordan Bowery. With December bringing six league matches, there'll be a need to rotate and refresh more than the norm. It's just a question of when Lambert decides to give Benteke a break.

Southampton have injury concerns. Goalkeeper Artur Boruc has a hand injury, so Paulo Gazzaniga, the 21-year-old Argentine, will make his first league start of the season. That's a change which could affect Saints, as could the absence of Morgan Schneiderlin. Record signing, 15 million pound Pablo Osvaldo, started against Chelsea on Sunday but it would be a surprise if Pochettino didn't recall Lambert, especially given his record against Villa last season.

The rest of Southampton's England contingent -- Rodriguez, left-back Luke Shaw and the excellent Adam Lallana, not to mention right-back Nathaniel Clyne, and right midfielder James Ward-Prowse, both of whom cannot be far away from a call-up to the full squad soon, will all surely start. But the player who may give Villa most trouble is Victor Wanyama, the six-foot, two-inch central midfielder who has been superb since a 12 million pound move from Celtic in the summer. What a difference a player like him could make to Villa.

An intriguing encounter awaits.

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