Season's end can't come soon enough for Villa
That feeling is back. It could be April 2012 all over again, those torturous last few weeks of the season in which Villa, under the stewardship of Alex McLeish, ground out insipid performance after insipid performance, limping, painfully and pathetically, towards the finish line.
There was anger then, too, and frustration, and disappointment, but most of all apathy. The end of that season couldn't have come quickly enough. When it did, it felt like a huge release. McLeish was swiftly on his way, and Villa fans were assured by the club's senior management that they would never have to experience that crushing sense of disappointment, week in, week out, again.
Yet the club is back there once more. The 2-1 defeat at home to Fulham, the Premier League's bottom side before kick-off, will have left many a Villa supporter totally numb. This season has seen plenty of lows at Villa Park; now the bar has been reset down a level. Paul Lambert's team continues to outdo itself, in all the wrong ways, and unwanted records are still being set.
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This was Villa's tenth home defeat of the league season. From 17 Premier League matches played, the hosts have been beaten ten times -- by Liverpool, Newcastle, Spurs, Everton, Manchester United, Crystal Palace, Arsenal, West Ham, Stoke and Fulham. The remaining two teams to come to Villa Park, Southampton and Hull, must be counting the sleeps until their respective matchdays.
Include the domestic cup losses against Tottenham and Sheffield United, and Villa's home faithful have watched their team lose 12 of 20 games (Rotherham were beaten, thank goodness). Lambert has been granted time and patience, but in the face of so many dismal reversals, it's only natural that many have just about given up the ghost.
The omens didn't bode well for Villa as soon as the team news began filtering through. It turns out Christian Benteke's injury was just the tip of the iceberg; though they were all due to far less serious conditions, the absences of Gabby Agbonlahor, Karim El Ahmadi and Fabian Delph -- hurt in the morning -- weakened Lambert team's further. Consider the continued unavailability of Jores Okore, Libor Kozak and Charles N'Zogbia, and that's seven footballers who would make a significant difference to this squad.
Still, Lambert has recruited this group. In the main, this is his squad. The starting lineup included seven players he has signed -- eight if Brad Guzan is counted, and he should be, for he had left Villa before Lambert brought him back to the club. Plus another five on the substitute's bench: Jed Steer, Antonio Luna, Yacouba Sylla, Jordan Bowery and Aleksandar Tonev.
The bitter truth is -- and this has been apparent for months -- that too many of this squad are not Premier League quality. That either betrays a shortcoming in the manager's judgement, or a shortfall in the budget provided to him, which has forced him to buy from outside the highest level. Either way, it is unsatisfactory and unacceptable, and someone is accountable. With two or three key players missing, the team's frailties are rudely exposed.
Given the circumstances, Lambert's starting XI was always going to have an unfamiliar look, though a couple of his decisions were still perplexing. Ryan Bertrand has been steady and consistent at left-back for the last two months, so pushing him into midfield, and bringing Joe Bennett in at left-back seemed an unnecessary change (the two had started in Villa's 0-0 draw at Cardiff, in the reverse roles).
So, too, was the decision to stick with a 4-3-3 formation which works well when El Ahmadi, Delph and Agbonlahor are in it, because those players have qualities which suit that set-up. A conventional 4-4-2, with Marc Albrighton and Bennett right and left of midfield, would at least have given Villa shape.
And then, with Villa trailing 2-1 and desperately chasing the game, Lambert's last throw of the dice saw him remove Albrighton from the action; Albrighton, who had been Villa's best performer of the afternoon and certainly in a creative sense. His choice of replacement was far from inspiring either. On the bench sat Callum Robinson, the young striker who has been in good form for the U21 side of late -- he scored twice in last Monday's 2-1 win over West Brom.
Instead, Lambert turned to Jordan Bowery, who has yet to score for the club since his transfer from Chesterfield in the summer of 2012. Statistically, there are not many Villa players less likely to net than Bowery, and yet on he came -- a centre-forward without the benefit of Albrighton's service from out wide. Admittedly, the switch was made with just four or five minutes to go, but with the pressure on a manager, such decisions are analysed, and rightfully so.
A few weeks ago, I examined Villa's last ten matches of the season and attempted to predict, game by game, the points the team would pick up and, therefore, reach a final total for the season. I got to 40. At the time, I wondered whether I had sold the team short by two or three, and definitely thought so after Villa beat Chelsea three weeks ago. However, by this stage of the campaign, I had the club on 37 points. The defeat to Fulham has Villa on 34. All three matches since the 1-0 success over Jose Mourinho's title challengers have resulted in losses.
With six games left, there are two significant questions. The first is this: where will the points come from? As things stand, none of the remaining fixtures can be viewed with confidence. Next weekend is a trip to Selhurst Park, to face an in-form Crystal Palace side which is tackling the task of avoiding relegation head on, with gusto and passion. Then it's Southampton, Swansea, Hull, Manchester City and Tottenham.
Secondly, who is going to score the goals? Two years ago, with Darren Bent injured, it was a similar situation. Last year, Villa were scoring for fun. Now Benteke, and Kozak are obviously unavailable, Andreas Weimann's form has flatlined to the point he doesn't really merit a place in the starting lineup, and though Agbonlahor is probably Villa's best bet, he's been frequently injured or ill in the last few weeks and has only scored three league goals all season.
It may well be that Lambert comes to lean heavily on the man he signed, more or less as an emergency loan, in January. At least Grant Holt got off the mark for Villa with that well-directed second-half header against Fulham, and the fact he completed 90 minutes will have encouraged the manager. Niclas Helenius remains in the background, somewhere, perhaps. His exact status seems to be a mystery. If he's fit, Lambert cannot afford, surely, to overlook such talent.
All in all, the next few weeks are likely to be challenging. Let's hope Villa's players have the appetite for it, for the fans have just about lost theirs. Offered the chance to end the season now, and forget about this stagnating existence for a while, many would snap your hands off.