Villa and West Brom resume derby rivalry

Posted by Kevin Hughes

AllsportAston Villa will be hoping not to rely on the comeback heroics of Ashley Westwood against West Brom a second time.

While the days slowly tick down to the closure of the January transfer window, there is the not-so-small matter of a Midlands derby for Villa to tackle.

Suspend hopes of finally landing that top-class attacking midfielder for 90 minutes, at least: Wednesday's Premier League clash against West Brom should be another keenly contested, feisty affair. There is little love lost between two clubs separated by less than four miles geographically, two points and three places in the league table. Tight? Tense? Tempestuous? Tick, tick, tick.

A shade over two months ago, the first meeting of the season between Villa and Albion was a raucous roller coaster of a match. West Brom were two goals up inside the opening 12 minutes, both scored by Shane Long, and should have been out of sight by halftime.

Villa were awful. Ragged and disjointed, Paul Lambert's team salvaged an unlikely point, not so much because of a spirited second-half response, but rather through two goals out of the blue. Karim El Ahmadi smuggled one back, almost from nothing, sneaking in at the far post, before Ashley Westwood's 25-yard screamer. That remains the midfielder's only goal for the club.

Despite surrendering a 2-0 lead, West Brom would have had more cause for optimism afterward. Albion were better in every department, Villa rode their luck. But the two months since then have been troubled and turbulent for the Baggies. An immediate run of four successive defeats cost Steve Clarke his job, Long -- who caused Villa's defenders no end of problems with his intelligent running -- has been sold to Hull, and the fallout of Nicolas Anelka's controversial celebration against West Ham on New Year's Day continues to disrupt.

The striker's actions have already cost his club its sponsor at the end of the season, and an FA charge and lengthy ban hangs over him. While Anelka has appealed his proposed five-game ban, however, he is available for selection and Pepe Mel, Clarke's successor as coach, has insisted his chances of starting against Villa are 99 percent. Barring an injury in the warm-up to the game, Anelka is in.

Testing times for West Brom, but results in comparison to Villa's since the November draw have been similar. The Villans have taken nine points from 10 played, Albion seven. Villa's record is two wins, three draws and five defeats; West Brom's is one win, four draws and five defeats. There's barely anything in it: a bit of perspective, should anyone believe the visitors to Villa Park are a club in crisis.

Both sides go into Wednesday's game off the back of draws against the league's Merseyside contingent, West Brom with as much reason to feel happy with a 1-1 draw versus Everton as Villa following their 2-2 tie at Anfield. Lambert will hope to field a repeat of the starting XI which took a 2-0 lead against Liverpool, if possible -- the only doubt surrounds Gabby Agbonlahor, who was substituted in that game.

Agbonlahor will be crushed if he misses out. He was absent from the side that started against West Brom earlier in the season, and always responds well to derby matches. In fact, it was the introduction of him and Andi Weimann, as second half substitutes, which helped to turn the tide at the Hawthorns.

If Agbonlahor doesn't make it, Lambert will probably hand a first start, and home debut, to Grant Holt, and reprise the 4-4-2 midfield diamond formation which surprised Liverpool. Westwood at the base, El Ahmadi and Fabian Delph to the right and left, and Weimann at the tip, pushing forward. Holt will partner Christian Benteke.

There will also be a home debut for Villa's other new signing of the transfer window, Ryan Bertrand, who suggested in an interview earlier this week that he'd be open to a permanent move from Chelsea when his loan expires. While it's too early to be discussing that just yet -- one game in to his Villa career -- it's promising news as a potentially permanent solution to a problem position.

Villa were sloppy and careless last time out against West Brom and very quickly two goals down; a confident and determined start on Wednesday would transform what has been, on too many occasions this season, an anxious Villa Park.

What should count in Villa's favour this time around is that Lambert's team should have a familiar structure to it: a more conventional back four, with Ron Vlaar and Ciaran Clark the centre-back partnership, and Bertrand at left-back (whether Matt Lowton replaces Leandro Bacuna at right-back, having paid his fine and served his punishment for arriving late for training, remains to be seen). El Ahmadi, Westwood and Delph are Villa's most effective midfield trio, and Weimann and Benteke appear to have rediscovered some of their zip of the previous season. Agbonlahor’s presence would be an obvious plus.

That night at the Hawthorns, Clark pulled an uncomfortable shift at left-back, Yacouba Sylla and Aleksandar Tonev's shortcomings were cruelly exposed, Libor Kozak struggled to make much impression, and Benteke cut a miserable figure, drifting around on the fringes of play. Villa are in better shape now than then, but that doesn't make the outcome any easier to predict.


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