Lambert's date with destiny at Norwich

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Getty ImagesAston Villa manager Paul Lambert faces his old squad for the second time this season in Tuesday's Capital One Cup quarterfinal.

It had to be Norwich, didn't it?

The quarterfinals of the League (or Capital One, to give due respect to the sponsors) Cup, and it's Norwich who stand in the way of a place in the last four of the competition for Villa.

Norwich. The club Paul Lambert left in the summer to take over in the Midlands.

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Kind of inevitable, really. There's probably nothing Norwich fans would love more than a victory over their former boss -- and putting him and Villa out of the cup, and at this crucial stage, would be all the sweeter, no doubt. Tuesday night's tie at Carrow Road will be festive and feisty.

It's the tie of the round, though Leeds hosting Chelsea being played later in the schedule because of Chelsea's Club World Club commitments is pretty tasty. Bradford host Arsenal on Tuesday and Middlesbrough travel to Swansea on Wednesday, but the return of Lambert to face the club he guided to successive promotions is the most fascinating.

It won't be a gentle 'homecoming' for Lambert. Norwich, after a difficult start under new manager Chris Hughton, are in strong form -- ten unbeaten in all competitions, which included a 1-1 draw at Villa Park back in October. And that run of ten includes some impressive results: 1-0 home wins against Manchester United and Arsenal, two other Premier League victories at Carrow Road -- over Sunderland and Stoke -- and most recently a 4-3 win at Swansea just last weekend.

In the previous round of the competition, Norwich sent Spurs out, winning 2-1. That's actually six consecutive home victories. Fortress Carrow Road? Getting that way, undoubtedly. In the Premier League table, Norwich are up to 12th and moving in only one direction.

It would be an injustice to Hughton to say he has merely carried on where Lambert left off. Of course, Lambert created a decent team and the core of that team is still intact; Grant Holt leads the line as Norwich's regular solitary centre-forward, with Wes Hoolahan operating just behind him, and Anthony Pilkington out wide.

Hughton has made some nice adjustments, freshening one or two positions up. Robert Snodgrass, signed from Leeds, is a clever footballer, offering guile and a pretty mean free kick as an attacking right midfielder. In the centre of Norwich's defence is Sebastien Bassong, strangely under-used at Spurs (considering the London club paid £8m to sign him from Newcastle). Bassong has also delivered the bonus of goals -- three league strikes so far in 14 appearances for the centre-back. To put that into context, that's as much as Villa's leading scorer, Christian Benteke, has delivered in the league.

While it's fashionable for some managers to make wholesale changes in the League Cup, choosing to rest regulars and give game time to less used members of the squad, I'd be surprised if Lambert strays too far from his Plan A for this one. It's not a game he wants to lose, and with Villa so close to the semifinals, not a gamble worth taking.

One change will be forced upon him and it's an unwelcome one. Ashley Westwood, who has oozed class since making his first league start of the season at Sunderland -- playing all seven matches from that day one -- misses out due to being cup-tied by Crewe earlier in the competition. Karim El Ahmadi is the logical choice to replace him.

Stephen Ireland and Fabian Delph, who both came on against Stoke, will be pushing to dislodge Barry Bannan and Brett Holman. Darren Bent is at least involved again, but front pair Gabby Agbonlahor and Benteke have five goals between them in the competition to date. I'd expect the defence to remain unchanged. Lambert knows Villa will need to keep a vibrant Norwich team, and their fans, quiet for as long as possible.

The last time Villa were at Norwich was a bitter-sweet affair. The team went down tamely, 2-0, in the final game of last season. Consolation came in the knowledge that a dreadful campaign had ended and during the match some Villa fans chanted Lambert's name. Within a couple of days, then-manager Alex McLeish was gone, setting in motion a chain of events that would see Lambert replace him.

If Villa fans are chanting Lambert's name again come the end of Tuesday night's clash, this time it will be a result in their favour.


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