Villa win a thriller to edge towards safety

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images Christian Benteke's 81st minute winner sent Villa Park into delirium.

For the second Saturday in succession, Villa turned a deficit into a comeback victory and can reflect on a productive, and potentially decisive, week's work.

A breathless 3-2 win against QPR means Villa have taken six points from six, and more importantly, won both the relegation head to heads: Faced with real pressure situations, Paul Lambert's young side have risen to the challenge and emerged on top. These are season-defining results, you feel; Villa have taken a massive stride in the right direction.

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In football parlance, Villa had to dig deep in this one. Starting with the XI that won at Reading -- a rare occurrence indeed for Lambert to either be able or choose to retain the same lineup for consecutive games -- Villa were confident and composed in possession only to see that assuredness evaporate 20 minutes in.

With Nathan Baker exiting early following a head injury, Joe Bennett stepped in at left back and promptly gave the ball away. Bobby Zamora's shot was saved by Brad Guzan and Jermaine Jenas swept in the rebound to put Rangers 1-0 up. It seemed a particularly sick joke on Villa: Jenas had spent last season at loan at the club but barely kicked a ball because of an Achilles injury.

It took most of the half for Villa's players to get their heads together, and the whole thing could have been over by the break. Guzan, who had made two excellent saves from Chris Samba even before QPR went ahead, kept Villa in it. The USA 'keeper has been superb throughout this most testing of campaigns.

Seconds before the halftime whistle, Villa grabbed a scarcely deserved equaliser -- Matt Lowton's cross was nodded in by Gabby Agbonlahor and the scenario was transformed. There is forever a feeling that Agbonlahor is somehow Villa's talisman: The days of him being a prolific goal-scorer may be beyond him, but he hasn't lost his capacity for important strikes. After the winner last weekend at Reading, this was another vital effort.

Villa noticeably stepped it up in the second half. Whereas the first saw a careful, keep-ball approach -- plenty of the ball but little to show for it -- Lambert's team were more direct after the break, as if the players sensed the game was for the taking and recognized the value of the three points on offer.

Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann got at the QPR fullbacks and the game developed into a gung-ho attacking showdown. The last 30 minutes was like a rollercoaster, or a whirlwind, or anything fast and frenzied and almost totally out of control. Weimann's fizzing drive put Villa 2-1 up, and then Lowton, piling forward, missed a great chance for a third and ease 30,000-plus racing pulses.

Inevitably, QPR equalised when Andros Townsend's shot deflected in off Ron Vlaar. But Villa picked themselves back up and Weimann demonstrated, yet again, his drive and determination to cut the ball back for Christian Benteke -- who otherwise had a bit of a going-over from Samba all afternoon -- to score the fifth goal of the game and wrap it up at 3-2.

With a rather bemusing five minutes of injury time, the finale to the game was tense (when isn't it, for Villa?) but it ended well. Having blown too many games in the later stages, it's never taken for granted that Villa will see a game out. This team, though, are beginning to prove that they do, after all, have the stomach for a relegation fight.

There's plenty of football to be played yet - eight games to go for Villa, but beating QPR has moved the club on to 30 points, and six clear of 18th-placed Wigan (although the Latics have two games in hand). Nevertheless, what Villa's recent results have done is tighten up the bottom half of the table; the club are actually now just four points behind Stoke, in 10th.

And, for perhaps the first time this season, Villa have a little momentum. The victories over QPR and Reading were the team's first consecutive league wins since May 2011 (Arsenal and Liverpool), and Villa have won three of their last five in the Premier League, taking nine points from a possible 15.

It's beginning to look slightly brighter at Villa Park.

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