Following four successive defeats and a turbulent week of coaching personnel changes, Villa’s response against Southampton wasn’t exactly stirring and spirited but a 0-0 draw takes the edge off the gloom. Just a little, at least.
This has to be considered a point won in the context of the game and the unsettling build-up to kick-off. Southampton didn’t spurn a host of chances but they created more openings of note and certainly had the lion’s share of possession, much as they did when Villa won 3-2 at St Mary’s Stadium in December.
On that occasion, Villa’s finishing in front of goal was sharp and clinical: what a sad contrast, then, between Gabby Agbonlahor’s incisive run and accomplished strike back then and his leggy, weary approach for the chance which came his way in the first half on Saturday. Sent clear of the Saints' defence, a heavy touch clumped the ball too far in front, giving Jose Fonte the opportunity to get across and tidy up.
Villa’s only genuine shot on target came through Marc Albrighton, when he came off the right wing to evade Luke Shaw and hit a 25-yarder with his weaker left foot. Artur Boruc tipped it over the bar. Other than that, this was a largely forgettable contest, with more interest in the two men sitting on the Villa bench than the players running around on the pitch. Sid Cowans and Shay Given, promoted to Paul Lambert’s first team coaching support staff after the suspensions of Ian Culverhouse and Gary Karsa, looked on.
It wasn’t possible to deduce any discernible differences in Villa’s style of play and neither were there any radical alterations to the line-up; though how much influence the pair could have had in just a matter of days is questionable. Indeed, whether Cowans and Given can really make much of an impact over the remaining four matches has to be asked.
Make that an interest in three individuals occupying the bench. This match marked a debut for Callum Robinson, the young striker who has been pushing hard for senior exposure. He had around ten minutes of action, little time to contribute anything worthwhile, though considering Agbonlahor’s lack of impact and Andreas Weimann’s near-anonymity, Lambert could do worse than give Robinson a start or two over the next few weeks.
These are, again, strange times in the history of Aston Villa. It feels very much as if a chapter is drawing to a close. Certainly, the season has almost ended and it will be a blessing when it does provided the club are still in the Premier League. Lambert has started to sound like a coach who is expecting his tenure to conclude shortly; a manager whose experience at the helm hasn’t turned out as he’d hoped.
“Things haven’t progressed the way I’ve wanted,” he admitted on the eve of the Southampton match. “I didn’t come here for it to be like this.” Neither did supporters expect two seasons of relegation struggle. The promise which came with Lambert’s arrival is now a foreign and long forgotten emotion.
And whatever his role in the actions taken against Culverhouse and Karsa -- whether he was a driver in them or not -- the episode will have taken its toll, for he had long and established relationships with both.
Rumours of a summer takeover have also gathered pace and grown in prominence in recent days, enough to warrant not only coverage in the national media but also a statement from the club -- a third in the space of a week. Amid an acknowledgement of the work Lambert is doing, in spite of being without several important players for much of the season, owner Randy Lerner said: “As regards my personal role at the club and the steady rumours of a sale, I will address these after the season.”
Words which, in no way, will do anything to dispel the talk; it would have been straight forward enough to issue a denial. In fact, Lerner’s comments will only fuel the growing belief that a sale is very much on the cards if and when Villa secure their Premier League status.
Any potential deal would surely hinge on top flight survival. That is far from certain. Saturday’s point keeps the club’s nose just ahead of the mire. A five point lead over Cardiff and Fulham means both of those clubs need to win two of their remaining three matches to climb over Villa, even if Lambert’s team lose all of the four games they have left. A far superior goal difference -- Villa’s is 20 better than Cardiff’s and 28 better than Fulham’s -- is worth an extra point in itself.
Norwich (with Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal to come) are three points below Villa, with West Brom two and Sunderland are six behind with four to play. Yet, the latter’s surprise victory at Chelsea over the weekend was an unwelcome reminder that results don’t always go as forecasted. It is a sad indictment of the state of the team that calculations for staying up are done so on the assumption that Villa will lose all four remaining matches. The players might have to do some of the work themselves.