Villa plan to extend Newcastle's poor run

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC/Getty ImagesTeams on a bad run of form have seemed to break their skids this season against Paul Lambert's Aston Villa.

Villa resume Premier League action with Sunday's televised match against Newcastle. The Magpies are on a run of poor form -- losing their most talented and influential player has more than a little something to do with that -- but can Villa take advantage and leave St James' Park with a much-needed victory?

Putting vulnerable teams away hasn't been Villa's strong point this season. Most recently, Cardiff, having lost four in five league matches, held Paul Lambert's team to a draw. Fulham had lost seven straight games, in all competitions, before beating Villa 2-0 in December.

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Manchester United hadn't won in four, but came to Villa Park and emerged victorious following a performance in which they barely had to move out of second gear. Sunderland had been defeated in their five previous away matches in the league, yet took a point from November's goalless draw in the Midlands.

You can see the pattern; Villa have allowed teams off the hook all season. There's a feeling that, should a club be struggling for form and confidence, Villa are the ideal opponents. It has to stop. Newcastle are on a stinker of a run, and have been since the end of 2013. Alan Pardew's team have lost three in a row, the last of which was a humbling 0-4 home defeat to Spurs. Prior to that, a 3-0 defeat at Stamford Bridge, and before that, the worst of the lot -- a 3-0 beating at St James' Park in the derby against Sunderland.

That's three defeats, no goals scored, and ten conceded. It sounds very much like the run Villa had in Christmas 2012. Look at the wider picture, and Newcastle's form is even poorer: four consecutive defeats, from December 29th until January 12, one of which was in the FA Cup. Counting back, in reverse sequence, from most recent match to that defeat against Arsenal in the final fixture of 2013, the Magpies' results have been: LLLDWLLLL.

In the league, it's one victory in the last eight, one draw (0-0 v Norwich) and six defeats. Newcastle haven't scored in their last four. Little wonder, then, that Pardew is being spoken about as the next top-flight manager in danger of losing his job. The club's form has deteriorated badly after a very tidy first half of the season.

It can't all be down to Yohan Cabaye's departure to Paris Saint-Germain. Or can it? The French midfielder was, after all, Newcastle's most gifted individual, and his farewell performance for the club, scoring twice against West Ham in their last league victory, was indicative of the way he could sway a match.

He won't be back at Newcastle anytime soon, but Loic Remy will. The striker's been sorely missed since a red card against Norwich, and his absence has coincided with the Magpies' barren run in front of goal. He'll be a major danger for Villa, as will, judging by recent history, Hatem Ben Arfa.

Ben Arfa's in and out at Newcastle, sometimes starting (but then invariably being substituted) or sitting on the bench. Unless Pardew is completely oblivious to the way he's played against Villa of late, he'll start on Sunday. The attacking midfielder scored the opener in the club's meeting back in September (Newcastle won 2-1), and equalised in this fixture last season; an absolute peach of a strike into the top corner to deny Villa victory, after Lambert's squad had taken the lead through Ciaran Clark.

He doesn't come up with special moments often enough, but Ben Arfa seems to reserve his best against Villa. Quite possibly, he has exactly the game to unsettle Villa's defence, drifting inside from wide positions and getting at the full-back. From Villa's point of view, Lambert will expect Ryan Bertrand to cope significantly better with Ben Arfa than Antonio Luna did earlier in the season.

September's defeat was a particularly disappointing one for Villa to take, a sad afternoon which saw Jores Okore exit after half an hour with a knee ligament injury, and Matt Lowton suffer a torrid afternoon, turned inside and out by Remy. The game highlighted Lowton's drop in form, and the right-back has rarely looked comfortable since then, never permanently regaining his place in the side.

This week, Lambert has refuted stories of a rift with Lowton -- not the first time the question has been asked, and whether to recall him to the starting line-up (or even the squad, for he wasn't involved against Cardiff) is one of decisions the Villa manager faces. In terms of the team, it's unlikely Lambert will again go with the 4-4-2 he fielded in Wales. Newcastle tend to use three central midfielders, and so Villa will probably go like-for-like, with Karim El Ahmadi in line for a recall.

Lambert is almost certain to want to find a place for Leandro Bacuna, so the Dutchman's pace and athleticism will probably be deployed at right-back. Marc Albrighton and Joseph Bennett, both starters against Cardiff, may have to settle for a return to the bench.

Expect Andreas Weimann to start in a familiar front three and alongside Christian Benteke and Gabby Agbonlahor. It would be a sensible decision. Getting both Weimann and Agbonlahor -- who each wasted good chances to win the game against Cardiff -- to get in behind Newcastle's wide players could bring some joy. Ben Arfa and Remy have ability going forward, but not tracking back. If Lambert can make sure his front three, particularly the two wide lads, can push high enough (which is what happened in the second half against Cardiff; Villa moved ten yards further upfield), it's a winnable tactic.

This is why Villa need to start with a positive approach, and take this game by the scruff of the neck. St James' Park will be a tense, nervous stadium on Sunday afternoon, and an early goal for the visitors would have a damaging effect on the hosts. The issue with Villa, as always, will be maintaining a level of performance for at least 60 minutes.

Impressive in patches of late -- the first 45 minutes against Liverpool, for 30 minutes against West Brom, the final 25 against West Ham, the second half at Cardiff -- Villa can't keep it going for long enough. The strongest part of Villa's game on Sunday has to come while the match can still be won.


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