Vulnerable Villa need home improvements

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC/Getty ImagesPaul Lambert's challenge of winning at home doesn't get any easier with Arsenal visiting Monday night.

Brace yourselves, for here come The Gunners.

Monday night's Premier League fixture brings with it a sense of foreboding at Villa Park: whatever the identity of the visitors and opponents, it seems the home side should never be considered favourites. Crystal Palace came and conquered. So too Sheffield United, of League 1, in the FA Cup last Saturday. Arsenal, topping the Premier League going into the weekend, will expect nothing less than a victory. And, desperately sad to say, the claret and blue faithful anticipate nothing more than defeat.

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Fortunes move fast in football. There was barely any time to savour Villa's victory at Sunderland on New Year's Day; within 24 hours, Libor Kozak had suffered a horrendous broken leg in training, and Paul Lambert was being condemned and scorned, in all directions, for his comments on the FA Cup and club priorities. The Villa manager was guilty of nothing more than honesty, and a touch of naivety, and certainly his opinion was by no means an exclusive one among Premier League coaches. But in the wake of his team's cup capitulation to the Blades of Sheffield, they are words he'll take a very long time to live down.

Cup defeats to lower league clubs are, regrettably, something Lambert is accustomed to since he took charge at Villa. This latest wretched result and performance emphasised the need for investment in quality, new players, yet again; the manager has already acknowledged his side lack experience, and particularly that elusive midfield playmaker to knit it all together: a 'No.10'.

That player won't be Steven Defour, the Belgian currently with Porto, in whom Villa were supposedly interested but now no more, and it might not be Wes Hoolahan, apparently Lambert's first-choice option but stuck in the middle of a wearily predictable stand-off. The Irish midfielder had reportedly handed in a transfer request at Norwich, something the Canaries issued a club statement to deny, and the scenario seems to have lost all momentum, for now.

It's no secret that Norwich's management are loathe to conduct any business with Villa, and the fact that Hoolahan has started just five league games for the East Anglian side this season seems of secondary importance. City may well keep hold of a player who has been far from central to Chris Hughton's plans, in which case, it's feasible that all three parties have lost out, in some manner.

Hoolahan would give Villa that extra creative spark, but all things considered, he doesn't justify a protracted transfer saga. Not when Villa need two or three new additions, and the sooner the better. The January transfer market never really hits top gear until the final few days, though Villa face Arsenal, Liverpool and West Brom before the deadline, and any new players could make a difference. Hoolahan and Defour aside, links have been minimal -- speculation of bids for Bradford striker Nahki Wells and Blackburn's Jordan Rhodes, and the obligatory rumour of a move for Joleon Lescott. Barring some very late and decisive action, any signings before the Arsenal match seem unlikely.

Three things got rather lost in the aftermath of the Sheffield United debacle: the extent to which Villa missed the injured Gabby Agbonlahor, the impact of substitute Nicklas Helenius, and the fact that Nathan Baker dropped out of the side minutes before kick-off with a knock, therefore disrupting the defence and forcing a reshuffle. Lambert at least has the capability to react to the first two of those against Arsenal. Agbonlahor is fit again, and he has the option of picking Helenius. "If there was one plus from the game," said Lambert after Saturday's defeat, "It was Nicklas coming on and scoring his first competitive goal."

The Dane did look sharp. His finish was excellent; a first-time snapshot from around 12 yards, and some of his approach play was impressive. The way in which, for example, he brought down a high ball, pulled it under control, and then played Christian Benteke for a shot on goal was encouraging. Helenius should be under serious consideration for a long overdue start.

Out of Lambert's control is the fitness of Baker, as well as captain Ron Vlaar. Both are scheduled for late fitness tests. Villa need Vlaar back and fully fit as early as yesterday. Without him in the centre of defence, the team concede an average of two goals a game. Unsustainable. If neither he nor Baker return, it'll be another makeshift defence, probably with Matt Lowton continuing at centre-back alongside Ciaran Clark, with Leandro Bacuna and Antonio Luna the full-backs. Joe Bennett and Chris Herd have both resumed training, but neither is near match fitness. Janoi Donacien remains an outside possibility, though Lambert is unlikely to start the 20-year-old prospect.

Arsenal, too, have had injury problems of late, but as Arsene Wenger plans the remainder of the season without Theo Walcott, he is expecting the return of Olivier Giroud, Mezut Ozil, Aaron Ramsey and Kieran Gibbs, and, possibly, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, who was injured in the opening match of the season, against Villa.

The mention of that match brings memories of Villa's surprise 3-1 win. The heady optimism of that victory has long since evaporated, and the season has taken a familiar path of struggle. To put some context to pre-match expectations, Arsenal have won seven away games, the joint best in the league, alongside Spurs. Villa have won two at home, the joint worst with Swansea, West Ham and Sunderland.

Villa have scored just seven league goals at home, the lowest in the Premier League -- Arsenal's 21 goals scored on the road is the best in the division. Villa's season is likely to get worse before it gets better, unless something remarkable happens on Monday night.


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