Villa hoping to avoid Monday blues against City

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Clive Mason/Getty ImagesDarren Bent's winning goal against Manchester City during the 2010-2011 Premier League campaign helped kickstart Aston Vlla's surge to ninth place.

It's the Monday night shift for Villa this week, that curious sideshow of a fixture that takes place after the buzz of the weekend's action. The beginning of the working week and Villa are back at the office for what will surely be a difficult meeting with Manchester City.

Looming large and conspicuously in the not-too-distant future are successive 'relegation six pointers' against, firstly, Reading away on March 9 and then QPR at home on March 16. Those are games Villa simply have to get something out of, but Paul Lambert can ill afford to fall into the trap of wanting to get the City game done and out of the way to prepare for these crucial upcoming battles.

- Lambert: Villa need to embrace relegation battle

As the Villa manager commented ahead of the game, there are 33 points still to play for this season and the match against Manchester City offers the opportunity for three. For a team in the bottom three, there are no points to waste. The Villa Park crowd on Monday night will have low expectations, but a victory, unlikely though it may be, would give the entire club a perfectly-timed lift.

It doesn't take a lengthy trawl through the memory banks to recall such an occasion. January 2011, and a Villa side beginning to feel the squeeze of a relegation threat, against a City team which would be Premier League champions less than 18 months later. Villa gave a debut to new record signing Darren Bent that evening and the script played out perfectly: Bent scored 18 minutes in; it proved the only goal of the game and belief coursed through the club.

That win didn't suddenly transform Villa to a higher level, but it was a significant success, three badly-needed points, and the club -- inspired to certain extent by the impact Bent made -- gradually moved away from the lower reaches of the table and finished in a respectable ninth position.

Villa don't have a top-class, record-breaking winter signing to turn to this time around. Yacouba Sylla and Simon Dawkins, the two January transfer window recruits, won't make the kind of impact that Bent did two years ago. Bent, incidentally, is rated a doubt to take part in the game due to a foot injury. No, what Villa must do this time around is to look back to last Saturday's defeat to Arsenal when they stayed the course until the final few minutes at the Emirates. Lambert's team were perhaps out-classed, but not overwhelmed by the Gunners and there must be encouragement in that performance.

The champions, for they still are, even if they will surely pass that honour across Manchester come May (or even April), have blown hot and cold in recent months. But last Sunday's 2-0 win over Chelsea kept City on course for second place and there seems little point in Villa clinging to any hope that Roberto Mancini's team will suffer a drop in motivation because the title is out of reach. If anything, City need to push hard for runners-up spot, coming under pressure from Spurs and Chelsea.

Likewise, any suggestion that City are vulnerable away from home seems inaccurate according to statistics. There have been one or two draws too many, but the champions have only been beaten twice away from the Etihad; the joint fewest in the Premier League, along with Manchester United. Not exactly a soft touch on their travels.

The team news for Villa focuses firmly on the potential return of captain Ron Vlaar, who was absent from the trip to Arsenal. Villa's defensive frailties are well documented; this side hasn't kept a clean sheet for 16 matches. It will be fascinating to see whether Lambert persists with his bold strategy of essentially playing four forwards (Charles N'Zogbia, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Andreas Weimann, Christian Benteke), which gives Villa an attacking threat but leaves them too open in midfield, for this one, or brings in a third midfield player.

Given City's strength in that area -- former Villan Gareth Barry may be fit to further boost a midfield which boasts Yaya Toure, James Milner, Jack Rodwell, Javi Garcia, Samir Nasri and David Silva, a wonderful array of options -- the shrewd decision for Lambert may be to draft Karim El Ahmadi or Sylla in alongside Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph.

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