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Mar 30, 2014

Villa press the self-destruct button again


The joke has worn thin now. Villa's obliging nature when against out of form opponents has been an unwelcome feature of the season, and so it was that manager Paul Lambert's side contrived to give Manchester United a huge helping hand in Saturday's defeat. For the second time in less than a week, Villa opened the scoring and ended up 4-1 losers. Come the end of season review, there will be a handful of games on which Lambert will look back ruefully and ask himself: "How did that happen?" This weekend's game would qualify as one of those. Despite the disappointment of their season to date, United have an abundance of individual quality in their squad but Villa were ridiculously accommodating. - Report: Manchester United 4-1 Aston Villa Having taken the lead through an excellent Ashley Westwood free-kick, Villa had the perfect platform on which to build, but defensive errors -- again -- gifted United goals. This is a continuing issue for Lambert, and he has yet to find the answer. One suspects that the possible solution is either a player, or players, not yet at the club, or the centre-back currently continuing his rehab from a cruciate knee ligament injury. How different this season might have developed with Jores Okore at the heart of the Villa defence. Then again, the Villa manager might wonder why players who were so well drilled and organised against Chelsea two weeks ago now seem incapable of covering the basic principles of defending. Making the correct decisions would be a start. Dropping Nathan Baker for Ciaran Clark was a predictable choice and an acceptable one too, but Clark's rush of blood which contributed to United's equaliser was alarmingly naive. Clark was standing beside Wayne Rooney as Shinji Kagawa, in possession, eyed up his options. There was nothing inventive about Juan Mata's forward run, but the Spaniard's dart into the penalty area jolted Clark into racing across, even though two colleagues were already with the midfielder. Kagawa's cross was an easy one to execute, and Rooney didn't even have to move to bend slightly and head past goalkeeper Brad Guzan. United's second was equally poor from a Villa point of view. Leandro Bacuna has had a bad week, and once Mata got the wrong side of him, inside the area, the outcome always looked disastrous: Bacuna's challenge was clumsy. The Dutchman has a lot going for him, and can consider his first season in the Premier League a success. His personal contribution has been very good, but his time at right-back should always have been a temporary solution. Instead, he's played more games there than anywhere else and he'll always be vulnerable when facing his own goal. He wasn't the only player culpable, either. Seconds before, Villa had been on the attack through Gabby Agbonlahor when the striker tried to play for a free-kick against Rafael rather than staying on his feet and standing strong. The decision didn't go his way, and United countered swiftly and directly. That was poor from Villa's longest-serving player, a man who is expected to be rewarded with a new four-year contract shortly; particularly as Agbonlahor had Rafael on toast in the first half, winning the free-kick from which Westwood scored, and getting the Brazilian booked in the process -- two reasons why the right-back was substituted at halftime. Conceding that goal seconds before halftime cast a total different complexion on the game. In the second half, however, it was the turn of Villa's front men to embarrass themselves. Christian Benteke's miss, on the six-yard line and completely unmarked, was incredible; the Belgian had time to take a touch before half-flicking, half-swiping at the ball, and almost failing to make contact at all. Later, Benteke bulldozed a header over the bar -- a far tougher chance, and remarkably similar to the one he missed against Spurs earlier in the season, but a chance all the same. He was only a few yards from goal. Villa were still in the game at that point but gave it away with just over half an hour to go. With the ball bumbling and bobbling around in the penalty area, Villa's defenders politely declined to clear the danger -- Ron Vlaar got it caught around his feet -- and Mata finished off an easy chance. Javier Hernandez's late goal gave the scoreline a rather flattering look. It didn't feel like a 4-1 defeat, which is all the harder to accept. Villa have been outclassed at Old Trafford so many times in the last two decades that it's easy to spot the difference when they are competitive and offer a genuine threat. But a lack of quality in front of both goals -- defending and going forward -- let the side down, and Lambert must remind his players of two things: that the end of season is not until the middle of May, and that the club are not yet mathematically assured of safety. Watching the first half, in particular, the pace was too leisurely, the atmosphere subdued. Like a match between two clubs with nothing to play for, though that's not strictly true. Villa have four teams within three points of them, with a trio -- Swansea, Hull and Palace -- still to play, and won't want to be caught up in any relegation trouble. While United have an eye on Southampton, just below them -- victory over Villa maintains their grip on seventh place. The next two matches will, more than likely, set the tone for the finale to the season. Fulham first, then Palace. Wins over both, or four points from the games, or even just victory in one of them, should see Villa alright. The club must find a ruthless streak, and soon, however. Hapless collapses cannot become habit.