Gabby back but Vlaar a major doubt

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Getty ImagesGabriel Agbonlahor's return to the starting XI should provide a lift to the Aston Villa attack.

The most critical question of the season has been answered already. Can Villa depend on the fitness of Ron Vlaar for the remainder of the campaign? No, is the clear verdict.

The Dutchman is rated as a major doubt for Saturday's match against West Ham. Vlaar limped out of the last ten minutes of the 2-1 defeat at Everton -- the hosts scored the winner with Villa's captain off the field -- and is still struggling with a hamstring injury.

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The pre-match update from manager Paul Lambert was far from encouraging: "Ron is a doubt", was the extent of it. In Lambert language, that's close to ruling a player out, though Vlaar will be given every chance to make the squad, such is his importance to the club.

The centre-back's fitness seems an almost constant source of concern and increasingly so during the last two months. Vlaar has actually missed only five league games this season, but those have all come since he was substituted at half-time against Southampton on December 4. He didn't finish his comeback game, at Sunderland on New Year's Day. Taking the Everton fixture game into consideration, Vlaar has been substituted because of injury three times in his last six appearances. He just keeps breaking down.

This is no surprise. Vlaar had injury problems last season, too, as well as frequently throughout his career. A move for a central defender, even on loan, would have been wise in January just to add that extra layer of cover -- insurance in the event of continued injuries for Vlaar, and until Jores Okore is considered fit to return. Incidentally, Okore may resume full training in March.

No incoming centre-back always threatened to bite Villa at some point, and it's happened almost immediately. Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker, a partnership that has rarely looked comfortable in the Premier League, are expected to start against West Ham.

However, there is more positive news concerning Gabby Agbonlahor, in line to go straight back into Villa's starting line-up after missing the dramatic derby victory over West Brom as well as last weekend's defeat at Goodison Park. Agbonlahor was close to unplayable as he inspired Villa to a 2-0 lead against Liverpool in mid-January, and in that kind of form he takes the side's attacking play to a higher level.

A fully fit and firing Agbonlahor brings out the best in fellow strikers Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann, giving Villa a better chance of doing what Chelsea failed to achieve recently; breaking West Ham down. The Hammers shouldn't be criticised for their defensive abilities, however -- it wasn't difficult to see through Jose Mourinho's post-match grumbling -- and the Londoners have the joint-highest number of clean sheets in the Premier League this season, tied with Arsenal on 11.

While Villa are sweating on Vlaar's availability, West Ham will be cursing the loss of Andy Carroll. The striker, having been injured for the majority of the season, was sent off against Swansea last weekend, and despite an appeal, his three-match ban has been upheld.

West Ham are furious; Carroll's performance against Swansea showed what Sam Allardyce's team have been missing for months. The centre-forward dominated Swansea's defenders: he was a physical, bruising battering ram in the penalty area, and created both goals for Kevin Nolan. Nolan, who has made a career out of sneaking from midfield into goal-scoring positions, benefited massively from working off Carroll, and the former Liverpool striker will be a huge loss. The trouble he would have given Clark and Baker could have been decisive.

Nolan, though, loves playing Villa. He's scored five career goals in the league against the Villans, and it was his strike which won the game at Upton Park in August 2012 -- Lambert's first match in charge of the club. Generally, however, this is a fixture Villa have dominated in recent years, winning four and drawing two of the last six encounters in Birmingham.

Last season's game, coincidentally almost exactly 12 months ago, saw Villa win 2-1; a victory which really signalled the start of the club's revival and a run of results that took them out of the relegation zone and through to safety. Charles N'Zogbia's contribution was crucial that afternoon, winning a penalty converted by Benteke and then curling in a wonderful free-kick.

Prior to that, Villa won 3-0 in August 2010 with goals from Stewart Downing -- now at West Ham, of course -- Stiliyan Petrov and James Milner. January 2010 (0-0) and April 2009 (1-1) were stalemates, Craig Gardner scored the only goal in October 2007's victory, while John Carew secured a 1-0 win in February of the same year.

History suggests a home win, but West Ham have been a tough nut to crack on several occasions this season.

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