Defensive disruption and a striking dilemma

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC/Getty ImagesFabian Delph played a key role in the win over Southampton and will be needed again Sunday at Fulham.

That was good while it lasted. The Villa defence which started against Southampton earlier this week had a look of normality about it, but within 45 minutes a change was required. Now it transpires that not only is Ron Vlaar an injury doubt for Sunday's trip to Fulham, so is left back Antonio Luna.

Vlaar has a calf injury, which is why the Villa captain was withdrawn at half-time of Wednesday's 3-2 win over Southampton. Luna's injury is more recent. Should neither player make it, manager Paul Lambert has some reshuffling to do. Far from ideal, when Fulham have lost six games on the spin, are quite possibly there for the taking, and Villa will want to deny them any kind of advantage whatsoever.

-Lambert defends starting Benteke on bench

Given his stretched defensive resources, Lambert is likely to again start with three central defenders; Matt Lowton coming in on the right side of the trio, next to Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker. Leandro Bacuna is the logical choice to continue at right wing-back, leaving the opposite berth the problem position to fill.

As typically bad luck would have it, Villa are fresh out of left-backs, with Joe Bennett still struggling with a back injury and Enda Stevens, who seemed reliable enough during his occasional appearances last season, totally out of favour and currently on loan at Doncaster.

Which leaves the Villa manager considering Aleksandar Tonev as a left wing-back, or reverting to the set-up he deployed for the final 30 minutes of the 2-2 draw at West Brom. At the Hawthorns, Villa switched to 3-4-3, with Fabian Delph on as a left-sided midfielder. It worked well. Delph didn't play as a wing-back, but a wide midfield player, and had the discipline and energy to drop and cover as a left-back if needed. With left-footed Clark behind him, however, he was never dragged too far back.

If it comes down to it, this will be Villa's best solution, and preferable to gambling on either Chris Herd -- who was injured during an Under-21 game this week -- or youngster Janoi Donacien, coming into the defence. The likely presence of Gabby Agbonlahor, whose usual starting position is on the left side of the forward line, should mean Villa are not exposed down that flank.

While Villa's options are limited at the back, it's the opposite story up front, where Lambert will again have the difficult choice of Libor Kozak or Christian Benteke at centre-forward. Kozak got the nod against Southampton, allowing the out-of-form Benteke to enter as a second-half substitute, replacing the Czech.

Kozak didn't do much against Southampton -- not a surprise, given the lack of chances Villa created -- but he did score on his only opportunity, a header from a right-wing cross. It was third goal in 10 league appearances for Villa, only six of which have been starts. And he's becoming something of a lucky omen for the club -- his three goals have all come in victories against Norwich, Cardiff and Southampton.

Villa fans might be slightly underwhelmed by him, probably because there's a sneaky suspicion he is Benteke's long-term replacement and he is simply not as complete a striker as the Belgian, but Kozak has something. All of his goals have come inside the six-yard box, and there is a feeling that, if he gets reasonable service, he'll finish a chance.

Kozak was replaced by Benteke immediately after his goal, and Villa's top scorer was sharp and bright. Perhaps a slight rest did him good, perhaps being left out gave him a little jolt that he isn't, after all, completely indispensable. Lambert's dilemma will be whether to continue with Kozak and allow Benteke a while longer out of the spotlight, or consider him ready to be thrown back in. Either way, Villa will have a threat on the bench.

Sunday's opponents are on a dreadful run, a losing streak which cost Martin Jol his job and saw Rene Meulensteen step up to head coach. Fulham pushed Spurs all the way in Wednesday's 2-1 defeat, however, and the usual invigoration which comes with a change of leadership should ensure the hosts are focused and motivated. The terms of Darren Bent's loan deal means Villa will avoid the embarrassing prospect of their unwanted record signing scoring against them; anyway, Bent hasn't always been in the Fulham lineup this season.

However poor Fulham's form might be, these fixtures have been tight affairs of late; four draws in the last six league encounters, a one-goal victory for each side in that time. It's been nearly four years since Villa's last victory at Craven Cottage, a 2-0 success at the end of January 2010 with both goals scored by Agbonlahor.

This is the perfect time for Villa to fine-tune a ruthless attitude. Sitting 10th in the Premier League table, a win on Sunday would set the club up perfectly for a serious attempt at a top-half, or top eight, finish come the end of the season.


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