Villa plunge to a new low

Posted by Kevin Hughes

There is a tipping point in the club career of every Premier League manager. Paul Lambert has either arrived at his at Aston Villa, or is uncomfortably close to it, after the Boxing Day loss at home to Crystal Palace.

The 1-0 defeat signaled a new low for Lambert, and not just because of the negative result against opponents who came to Villa Park six points behind the hosts and in the bottom three; Palace should really have been brushed aside, but like so many -- too many -- teams these days, came away winning the game.

Villa are truly woeful at home. This team has scored just six times in nine league games at Villa Park this season, and it was a depressingly familiar story against Palace. Unusually for Villa, they held the upper hand in terms of possession -- ceding the ball to the opposition has been a major source of criticism this season -- but did very little with it.

Chances were scarce. Andreas Weimann, who has struggled in front of goal all season, steered one volley straight at Julian Speroni when he should have had the presence of mind to take the ball down and place the shot, and blazed high and wide from another decent angle.

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Palace had the better openings. Barry Bannan, sold by Villa right at the end of the summer transfer window, had a bright afternoon and hit the post with a left-footed effort -- had that gone in, Villa Park might have imploded in righteous fury, for Bannan is beginning to become the perfect poster boy for the anti-Lambert brigade which is growing in number with every passing, losing, game. A player whose face simply did not fit the Lambert 'model' but who is showing himself to be a more than capable footballer at another Premier League club. And certainly more than capable in comparison to half the players Villa are fielding of late.

A Bannan winner would have been too cruel, and too much to bear, though Dwight Gayle's brilliant injury-time clincher tipped many a Villa fan over the edge. Those who arrived at Villa Park prepared to give Lambert the benefit of the doubt, to further extend him patience and breathing space, left with minds changed.

The mood was transformed, the frustration and unrest evident. In the aftermath of the final whistle, talk was of an angry exchange between assistant manager Ian Culverhouse and supporters, with reports of Lambert's right-hand man verbally abusing home fans. In his post-match interview, Lambert stressed that he would not walk away from the challenge ahead -- in other words, would not be resigning -- but the fact the question is now even on the table is evidence of Villa's alarming slide.

The tide has turned, and herein lies the new low, not a single, bad result against Palace. There is only so long paying fans can tolerate repeatedly poor performances, and there have been too many this season. While there is an appreciation, among the majority of Villa supporters, of the financial situation at the club, of the task Lambert has, and of where he is trying to take Villa to, at the end of it all, fans just want to see good football. Not even good - just decent. Players who can pass a ball competently. Score a goal. Win a game. There has been so little of that from Villa that it is no surprise the faith is waning.

Lambert has said he cares nothing for statistics, and that the final result is all he's bothered about. That being the case, four straight defeats, with just one goal scored in that time -- and that more or less handed to Libor Kozak on a plate via a loose back pass at Stoke -- will hurt.

His desperation to stop the rot and take all three points was apparent in the closing stages against Palace, as he replaced left-back Antonio Luna with Leandro Bacuna in an attempt to create more drive forward.

Yet, even later in the game, Lambert demonstrated the tactical nuances which have baffled fans on more than one occasion, taking off Kozak for Jordan Bowery, a striker who has yet to score for Villa, but who remains ahead of Denmark's Nicklas Helenius in the pecking order. Helenius, a Lambert signing, cannot get a sniff of a game; quite what he's done to deserve being totally overlooked is unknown.

The 'Lambert Out' campaign gains momentum, but Villa haven't changed manager mid-season since John Gregory left in January 2002. Though other clubs continue to act when the need to do so is felt -- Cardiff and Malky Mackay the latest football divorce -- Randy Lerner is likely to stand by his man. He and Lambert reportedly have a strong relationship, and, apart from anything else, the manager is doing as required as long as the club can remain in the Premier League without hemorrhaging a fortune. It's come down to that, however unpalatable that is to accept.

A positive result can work miracles for morale, however, and it goes without saying that Villa's next two league games now look absolutely critical -- Swansea at home on Saturday, followed by a visit to Sunderland on New Year's Day.

Villa won both these fixtures last season -- 1-0 at the Stadium of Light last November, with a Gabby Agbonlahor goal, and 2-0 against the Swans at Villa Park; Lambert's first league win at the club, secured by Christian Benteke's first goal for the club.

Benteke won't be available to face Swansea, of course, as he continues to recuperate from a knee injury, and Villa must again find a way to score without him. An apprehensive, fearful, Villa Park awaits.


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