Villa back on relegation watch

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Spare a thought, if you will, for those who watch and write about Aston Villa. It has often felt, for much of the past 18 months, like something of a Groundhog Day whenever Villa take to the field: 90 minutes of familiar failings and struggle.

There have been occasional, script-busting games this season -- away at Arsenal, Southampton and Liverpool, at home to Manchester City. Perhaps, also, at home to West Brom, but eventually Villa's shortcomings were exposed then, too. But in the main, the performances have been almost identical, depressingly identical, to the one which Villa contrived to produce against West Ham on Saturday.

A defence without Ron Vlaar, nervous and vulnerable? Check. Inexplicable individual errors? Check. A lack of invention and creativity in the final third? Check. Handing the initiative to the opposition? Check. Losing at home? Check. It's now three wins from 13 home league games this season for the Midlanders.

- Report: West Ham 0-2 Aston Villa

Against the Hammers, it was all there yet again. The worst of it is that Villa's weaknesses have been known for some time, and manager Paul Lambert has not, or has not been able to do anything to address them. The club desperately requires an experienced head in the centre of defence, and particularly so when Vlaar is absent. An upgrade in quality in midfield would be welcomed too.

Experienced recruits arrived in January, but in the shape of a left-back, who has admittedly improved the first XI, and a striker to add cover from the bench. It did not feel enough at the time. It does not look enough now.

Villa's defeat was wearily predictable. My preview of the match discussed West Ham's defensive prowess -- now on 12 clean sheets for the season, following Saturday's shut-out -- the frailties of the Ciaran Clark-Nathan Baker partnership, and the goalscoring success Kevin Nolan has enjoyed in his career against Villa.

Sam Allardyce's team have been difficult to beat all season. Villa had more of the ball than West Ham -- that, at least, is a variation on the norm -- but did little of note with it, and capitulated by conceding two goals in as many second half minutes. Both scored by Nolan, that thorn in the side. This, too, has become a nasty, lazy habit of Villa's: conceding goals in quick succession.

Against Arsenal, it was two in a minute; against West Brom, two in five. At Everton last weekend; two in 11. At Liverpool, though separated by half-time, Villa shipped two in eight minutes. This is a defence still breached all too easily.

Both of West Ham's goals were soft. The opener came less than 20 seconds from the re-start, and owed much to Stewart Downing's trickery, wide on the right -- how typical that the former Villa man made a decisive contribution. He tied Ryan Bertrand up nicely before squaring the ball, though quite how Nolan was able to find the space to score with his back to goal and from a clever flick is a question Villa's defenders should be asked every day in the coming week.

The second was worse. Fabian Delph, by a clear distance one of Villa's best players this season, hesitated on the ball and was dispossessed by Nolan. It was Delph's mistake, though the situation called for Baker to take charge. The centre-back was just behind Delph and should have asserted his authority to move forward and clear the ball, whereas the Villa midfielder was facing his own goal and under pressure.

Villa only started playing with urgency, fire and direction at 2-0 down which, again, is a scenario witnessed regularly this season. Marc Albrighton, on a substitute, was involved in most of Villa's best play, striking a post with a 30-yarder that unluckily hit the back of diving West Ham 'keeper Adrian on the rebound and diverted over to safety. Albrighton did well to race over to keep the ball in play and produced a fabulous left-wing cross which Christian Benteke headed onto the bar.

Lambert should find a way of fitting Albrighton into his starting line-up. As with most wingers, the 24-year-old can be hit-and-miss but Villa always look far more threatening when width is introduced, and Albrighton can cross a ball as well as anyone in Lambert's squad. It seems pointless, too, not to provide Benteke with as much decent service as possible.

After losing the last two games, Villa have missed the opportunity to reach the comforting 30-point mark by early February which, in terms of overall confidence as well as league position, would have been a worthy achievement. As it stands, results elsewhere over the weekend mean Lambert's team have dropped a couple of places, from 10th to 12th, and five clubs, right down to Sunderland in 17th, are within three points of Villa.

With a couple of teams beneath Villa finding momentum, notably West Ham and Crystal Palace, the pressure is back on, and the threat of being dragged back into the relegation picture now seems a likely possibility -- more of a probability, in fact. Tuesday night's visit to Cardiff, as a result, has taken on extra significance. Villa simply cannot afford to lose.


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