Benteke breakthrough brings hope

Posted by Kevin Hughes

It was just a single goal, a consolation one at that, but Christian Benteke's effort against Arsenal could turn out to be Villa's most significant of the season.

The Belgian's strike ultimately counted for nothing, coming in yet another home defeat with Villa slipping to a 2-1 loss and cursing the 60-second lapse during which The Gunners scored twice. But Benteke's diving header may be critical for two reasons: firstly, it transformed the atmosphere in what had been a subdued Villa Park, galvanising the home crowd and inspiring a spirited response from Villa.

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The manner in which Paul Lambert's team took the game to Arsenal in those closing stages, pushing hard for an equaliser -- which, perhaps, should have arrived via Benteke's glancing header -- is something Villa's players can take into next Saturday's match against Liverpool at Anfield. Confidence, though not restored, will have been lifted at least a little.

Secondly, the goal must have done Benteke a world of good. His barren run stretched back to mid-September. That time frame is slightly misleading, as hip and knee injuries affected his availability and fitness during the last few months, but even so, the striker had featured in 12 matches, the majority of those starts, without scoring. Throughout the dry spell, his body language, demeanour and overall sharpness was a major source of concern.

During the first half against Arsenal, his performance was muted. Lambert would have been justified in withdrawing him at the break and giving Nicklas Helenius a further chance. Benteke stayed on and took his goal very well, springing forward to meet Matt Lowton's excellent cross and heading into the net. The hope that every Villa fan will cling onto now is that, having finally found his mark, last season's top scorer will be revitalised and reinvigorated. It was, after all, this time last year when Benteke hit his stride and became nearly unstoppable in front of goal.

"It was a great feeling for me because I've had a hard time," Benteke told the club website. "I hope this goal will help me to score more in the coming weeks."

Spinning something positive from defeat is fast becoming a requirement where Villa's results are concerned this season. Benteke's goal was the biggest plus from the evening. Lambert would have also been pleased with the performance of his fit-again captain, Ron Vlaar -- one potential game-saving tackle on Arsenal left-back Nacho Monreal stands out -- and the contribution of Leandro Bacuna, introduced as a first-half substitute to replace the eternally unfortunate Nathan Baker.

There will have been frustration too, of course. Plenty of it. Having started with a 3-5-2/5-3-2 formation, a set-up designed to contain Arsenal and exploit the visitors on the counter, Lambert's strategy was wrecked within 15 minutes as Baker blocked a fierce shot with his head and required several minutes of treatment before being taken off. It emerged during the match that he had suffered a minor concussion.

Villa seem to experience perpetual bad luck with central defenders, and now cannot even get through a single game without disruption. Against Sheffield United, Baker was injured in the warm-up and couldn't play; in the previous game at Sunderland, Vlaar limped off midway through the second half. Villa cannot field the same defence for 90 minutes, let alone for successive matches.

Baker's exit required a reshuffle, with Bacuna on at right midfield and Villa adjusting to a 4-4-2. The annoying element then was that, having weathered the predictable early Arsenal dominance, Villa grew into the game and started to show some ambition. Gabby Agbonlahor made a couple of penetrating runs in behind the Gunners' back line, and Fabian Delph steered a shot wide from the edge of the area. Watching that again, it was a better chance than at first thought: Delph had time and space, but went for power over placement when there was plenty of the goal to aim at.

When Arsenal went ahead, Jack Wilshere, the goal-scorer, was in a similar position, breaking from midfield to reach the penalty area. He guided his shot inside Brad Guzan's far post, however. That's the kind of composure Delph needs to attain in his own game if he's to break into the England squad.

Seconds later, straight from kick-off, Villa passed the ball around at the back, Delph lost possession under pressure from Wilshere and his pass allowed Olivier Giroud to squeeze ahead of Vlaar and score with a left-foot finish. It was Delph's mistake, but on receiving the ball, Giroud was the only Arsenal player in an advanced position, while surrounded by four or five Villa players.

It was a minute of madness which cost Villa the game. Either side of those crucial moments, Arsenal rarely tested Guzan, and though Arsene Wenger's team probably always had an extra gear in reserve, Villa's performance in the final 25 minutes showed a glimpse of what these players are capable of.

When Villa are effective, it's by playing to the strengths of the team: high tempo, pressing further up the field, moving the ball quickly and accurately and, above all else, getting decent service in to Benteke, Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann. It's what worked for the team in the final quarter of last season and what made Arsenal distinctly uncomfortable towards the tail end of Monday night's match. Lowton, in particular, was the source of much of Villa's best work. He can cross a ball as well as any right-back in the Premier League.

Why didn't Villa start the game playing the way they concluded it? That is the question many supporters have asked, and debated, for most of the season. If Lambert is looking to encourage a more pragmatic, patient and measured style of play -- and perhaps he's been stung by some of the early-season criticism of his team's use of the ball, and low possession statistics -- it should be dawning on him that he doesn't have the players to pull it off -- yet, at least. Villa's cagey, conservative approaches to the opening periods of games this season have scarcely resulted in happy endings.

Speaking of happy endings, Lambert has concluded his first signing of the January transfer window, bringing in Grant Holt, his former centre-forward at Norwich, on loan until the end of the season. Holt arrives after a less than prolific season, to date, with Wigan, and he's certainly not a signing which will send a buzz of excitement through the club's fans.

Referring back to that need for always seeking the positive in whatever Villa do, there is logic in the Holt deal: he'll provide cover for the injured Libor Kozak, and his physical and vocal presence could be useful. The main regret is that Holt's arrival could marginalise Helenius, and it's disappointing that Lambert cannot seem to trust a player he signed just a few short months ago.

Taken in isolation, bringing Holt in is seriously underwhelming, but, provided the 32-year-old is followed by two or three others in positions Villa are genuinely weak in, he'll be accepted by the majority of supporters.


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