Injuries hampering Villa plans

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Neville Williams/Aston Villa FC/Getty ImagesAndreas Weimann is just one of many Aston Villa starters plagued by injuries this preseason.

This is proving to be a summer to remember for several of Villa's Academy squad -- the group which won the coveted NextGen Series last season -- but the promise of these talented rookies pales in comparison next to a mounting injury list which is threatening to undermine Paul Lambert's preparations for the start of the new season.

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If fitness, rather than results, is the priority of the pre-season matches, only half of Villa's squad are getting anywhere near in shape for the Premier League kick-off against Arsenal on August 17. The other half, it seems, are pulling up and limping off with a succession of injuries. The situation has forced manager Lambert to tap into the club's blossoming youth to fill out his weakened squad.

While pre-season is the ideal time to integrate young prospects, it's concerning that Lambert is being denied key players. Villa fans who have followed the team's progress over three matches in Germany, against Wycombe last Saturday, and away to Luton this Tuesday night, have yet to see Lambert able to pick his strongest XI. That's a luxury that the manager may not even be afforded before the visit to the Emirates Stadium. So much, then, for his best laid plans of conducting summer transfer business early on, and being able to get his team together well in advance of the season. Injuries have scuppered that intention.

Of most concern is the fact that the majority of the injured players are of an attacking nature. Lambert's squad has a decent mix of forwards and wingers, but the squad that made the short trip from Birmingham to Luton's Kenilworth Road ground was almost totally devoid of senior players in attacking positions. Andreas Weimann and Jordan Bowery both left the action prematurely against Wycombe, joining fellow striker Gabby Agbonlahor, who hasn't played since the first game in Germany, on the sidelines. Nicklas Helenius wasn't fit enough to face Wycombe, making it four forwards currently injured. Aleksandar Tonev remains unfit, while Marc Albrighton was ruled out of both recent matches due to illness. With Charles N'Zogbia out for the foreseeable future with his Achilles tendon injury, Villa went to Luton without seven forward players.

With such players absent, Lambert has turned to Villa's young guns. Irishman Graham Burke replaced Weimann against Wycombe and stayed on for the rest of the match; the 19-year-old Dubliner, joint-leading scorer in the NextGen series (two of his goals came in the final against Chelsea), started against Luton. Jack Grealish, a winger, started (and starred) at Wycombe, while the second half saw appearances from two other Academy graduates -- Janoi Donacien and Jonathan Webb coming in at right and left back, respectively, were called on to deputise for the injured defensive pair of Jores Okore and Joseph Bennett. Samir Carruthers and Daniel Johnson, veritable veterans compared to the latest newcomers, were involved against Wycombe and Luton.

Alongside Burke against Luton, there was further game time for Grealish, Donacien, Webb and another from the group -- winger Callum Robinson. Lambert was at least able to bring Christian Benteke in at Luton, for his first appearance of the pre-season period, though he must have been tempted to wrap the big Belgian in cotton wool. Benteke wasn't expected to feature until Friday night's trip to Crewe, but so stretched are Lambert's attacking options that the plan was scrapped. He was one of four to start who could reasonably be expected to line up against Arsenal; Yacouba Sylla, Fabian Delph and Nathan Baker being the others.

Unfortunately, Benteke was substituted at half-time of the 2-0 defeat to Luton; perhaps that was always intended, perhaps not. He was seen to hold his groin towards the end of the first half, and was known to struggle with groin problems towards the end of last season. For Villa's sake, let us hope it is not yet another setback to a striker. That would be outrageously poor fortune.

Lambert has certainly been able to get a good, long, look at a selection of the players who may be pushing for a place in Villa's first team in the future, and certainly, Grealish, in particular, stood out with an impressive performance at Wycombe. But there will be an element of frustration, too, in that he's been unable to get his front players together. He'll be anxious to get some of them back in action as quickly as possible -- Weimann should be fit within two weeks -- so he can at least field something approaching his best side when the Spanish club, Malaga, visit Villa Park on August 10.

Then again, Lambert might reflect that it's better to get all of Villa's injuries out of the way in July. A fully fit squad come August is too much to expect, but three or four of the injured back in action would make a significant difference.

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