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Apr 24, 2014

Focus on the here and now, Villa


Taking each game as it comes is about as tired and worn out a footballing cliche as you're ever likely to find, but it's one Villa's players and management should take on board. There has been such a shift in attention to what may happen at the club over the summer -- possible ownership takeover, change of manager, incoming and outgoing players -- that the more immediate priority has almost been overlooked: Villa's involvement in a relegation battle is very real. Postpone the discussions on whether David Moyes would be the perfect replacement for Paul Lambert for a couple of weeks -- Villa need to get some points on the board to pull clear of the bottom three, starting with a trip to Swansea this weekend. - Report: Lerner to address sale reports There are a raft of issues for Lambert to tackle: Marc Albrighton has revealed this week that there have been no talks on offering him a new contract, despite his current deal expiring shortly (he surely deserves at least another two years after his efforts in the last few months), and Yacouba Sylla's comments on lack of game time suggest either a permanent transfer, or loan, is likely. But these are tasks for Lambert to tackle later, if at all, for they may not even be his problems come the end of the season. Lambert's urgent priority is to drag his struggling team over the finish line, and with the season closing at Manchester City and Tottenham, matches against Swansea, and then Hull, should offer the best chance of points -- at least on paper. The Welsh club are in a similar position to Villa: a point above the Midlanders now having won 2-1 at Newcastle last weekend thanks to Wilfried Bony's double, the second of which was a 90th-minute penalty. It feels slightly misleading that Swansea are only a single point superior to Villa, because in all other areas they seem to have significant advantages: a group of players largely comfortable and composed in possession, a style of play which is easy on eye, some genuinely technically-gifted footballers. There is a continuity and balance about Swansea, as a club, which is completely at odds with the last few years at Villa. It's not unreasonable to suggest half, or more, of the Swansea side would walk into Villa's, but it's not the case the other way around. The fact that this side is relatively low in the Premier League table is probably a result of two factors: the ongoing absence of last season's leading scorer, Michu, who has featured in only 17 league games, and Swansea's presence in the Europa League, which stretched a modest squad's resources and provided a distraction. Changing managers mid-season, with Garry Monk stepping in for Michael Laudrup, was a further complication. Swansea have at least had an able deputy for Michu in Bony. Villa have struggled without their own leading goalscorer although, it should be said, Christian Benteke's replacement-in-waiting, Libor Kozak, has been out since January with a long-term injury of his own. But, particularly since Benteke's season-ending Achilles tendon rupture, Villa have looked woeful in attack with a single goal in three games. Neither Gabby Agbonlahor nor Andreas Weimann look like scoring anytime soon. Grant Holt is a willing worker but an option from the bench at best. Callum Robinson, who made his debut last weekend against Southampton, is raw but at least fresh. Jordan Bowery has rarely looked up to top flight football. But there may be another choice for Lambert on Saturday. Nicklas Helenius is fit, according to his agent. "He's fully fit and ready to play if the needs him," said Mads Bach Lund. "He has worked hard, gained some pounds and is 100% focused." And yes, his team do need him. The lack of match action for Helenius is one of the most disappointing aspects in an underwhelming campaign. From a personal point of view, he and Jores Okore were the two summer signings I was most looking forward to seeing in 2013-14, and for contrasting reasons neither have really figured. Helenius has seen just 147 minutes of game time (three league appearances and two in the cup) and, even when fit, it's bewildering that a player Lambert signed has been used so little. Indeed, he was last seen coming off the bench to score against Sheffield United in the FA Cup in January, and his right foot finish on that occasion showed a striker with enough technique and instinct to suggest he has plenty to offer. Goals are hard to come by for Villa, and Lambert shouldn't ignore Helenius; the 22-year-old Dane at least appears to know what to do with a chance. Frankly, Lambert is fast running out of ideas, and time. He may as well try something slightly different and at least give it a go over the next four matches -- Helenius at centre-forward with Agbonlahor and Albrighton either side and in front of a midfield three of Leandro Bacuna, Ashley Westwood and Fabian Delph might be a refreshing change. That would give Villa some pace in the attacking areas, which will be the team's best chance of a victory at Swansea, for it is obvious that the hosts will have the lion's share of the ball and the visitors will operate on the counter. There might be much to occupy thoughts heading into the close season, but there's a significant job to be done. Safety first, then deal with whatever comes next.