Changes likely for Villa's cup clash

Posted by Kevin Hughes

From Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool to Rotherham in the Capital One Cup, and a very different type of challenge for Villa manager Paul Lambert to take on.

David Rogers/Getty ImagesJoe Bennett is among several Villa youngsters who could benefit from playing time Wednesday in the League Cup.

The second-round tie at Villa Park on Wednesday night provides Lambert with the chance to rest the players who have just experienced a frenetic first week of the new Premier League season, while affording opportunities to those who have been on the fringes so far.

The task requires finding the right balance: Rotherham are in League One, but Lambert and Villa have bitter recent experience of lower-league opposition in this competition. The Yorkshire club are unbeaten in four league games this season, winning one and drawing three, suggesting they may come to Villa Park with a reasonable measure of confidence.

For Lambert, his selection decisions revolve around more than merely resting key players and replacing them with those who have filled his bench. This is a cup competition he takes seriously, and he'll also be mindful that the game is Villa's last until Sept. 14. Therefore, he'll probably weigh up which of his players really need to take a step back, which could still benefit from remaining in the team, and how many, from the group who have missed out on starting positions, should be promoted.

Villa's team has almost picked itself over the opening three Premier League games -- Leandro Bacuna, in for Karim El Ahmadi against Liverpool, has been the only unforced change to Lambert's first XI; Nathan Baker and Ciaran Clark dropped out against Chelsea and the Reds because of injury. Against Rotherham, however, Lambert is sure to mix things up a little.

Defence is the area Lambert would do well to largely avoid tinkering with. Keeper Jed Steer, signed from Norwich in the summer, is likely to spend the duration of the league campaign sitting on the sidelines if first-choice Brad Guzan remains fit, so the youngster should get a rare start. And it would be wise to put as close to a full-strength back four in front of Steer as possible.

Villa have no recognised back-up right-back in the squad to turn to on such occasions, so Matt Lowton should start, while over on the left, I'd retain Antonio Luna. There may be a temptation to give Joe Bennett a game, but how prepared he'd be is up for debate; Bennett barely featured in preseason and was out of the matchday squad against Liverpool. A second-half run-out as substitute would be more advisable.

In the centre of defence, Jores Okore is beginning to find his stride nicely after a game and a half in the claret and blue, and to continue his progress, he should also retain his place. If fit, Clark can come in alongside the Dane -- both he and Baker are still rated as injury doubts, but the former was in the squad last Saturday and his left foot will balance the partnership out well. Clark's inclusion would allow captain Ron Vlaar to take a break.

Into midfield, where competition for places is hotting up, and Lambert might feel both Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph -- somewhat harshly overlooked for the latest England squad -- have deserved a rest. Yacouba Sylla hasn't featured at all for Villa yet this season, and the cup match is an opportunity for him to return.

El Ahmadi, quietly effective after coming on as a second-half substitute against Liverpool, would provide the steadying influence next to the young Frenchman. That's a strong duo in the middle of the field to face Rotherham.

Ahead of Sylla and El Ahmadi, an attacking three. Another decent look at Bacuna wide on the right might be in order. The Dutchman was promising in patches last Saturday, and though he can operate well enough at right-back -- and did for the final 25 minutes when Lowton bowed out -- logically, that won't be his main position for Villa. Using him there would allow Lowton to rest, and it may be Lambert prefers to do that, but he might see greater benefit giving Bacuna an extended run in a role he can actually make his own. The 21-year-old has the pace and direct play to seriously threaten the visitors.

There must surely be starting roles for two of Villa's new signings who have seen scant action thus far. Aleksandar Tonev's exposure has amounted to 24 minutes as a second-half substitute (eight minutes at Chelsea, 17 against Liverpool), while Niclas Helenius got only seven minutes, plus injury time, after his late introduction at the weekend.

Both should make their full debuts for the club -- Tonev stepping in for Gabby Agbonlahor wide on the left, Helenius for Christian Benteke at centre-forward. Big boots for the duo to fill, but Villa need to lessen their dependency on Benteke, while Agbonlahor tired toward the end of the Liverpool match and will be grateful for the chance to recharge his batteries.

That leaves one place open in the side, the 'No. 10' slot just behind the striker. Lambert has an array of options. But having publicly suggested that Andreas Weimann could thrive there, this is the prime time to see what can do, in a central position that suits his game better than wide right.

Weimann's form has been one of the more disappointing aspects to Villa's start to the season, with the Austrian failing to take a couple of decent chances and generally looking short of providing the zip and buzz so characteristic of his performances in 2012-13. Yes, Lambert could take him out of the firing line, but the young striker might revel at the prospect of getting himself into more dangerous scoring positions. He can always sit out the second half of the match.

The early stages of the League Cup are traditionally notoriously full of booby traps for Premier League clubs who make wholesale changes and completely disrupt the momentum and shape of an otherwise well-functioning team. Lambert has several squad members yet to appear for the first team this season -- Bennett, Jordan Bowery, Chris Herd, Marc Albrighton, Gary Gardner -- but trying to involve too many could backfire. My suggested lineup means Villa retain an XI of quality, while still giving those most heavily involved in the three fixtures so far a welcome breather.

And Lambert can always turn to Benteke, Agbonlahor and Delph from the bench if needed.

Suggested starting line-up (4-2-3-1): Steer; Lowton, Okore, Clark, Luna; El Ahmadi, Sylla; Bacuna, Weimann, Tonev; Helenius.
Substitutes: Guzan, Vlaar, Bennett, Delph, Albrighton, Benteke, Agbonlahor.


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