Lambert's last in charge?
When Paul Lambert took his seat for his final news conference of the season as Aston Villa manager, it must have crossed his mind that it could have been his last ever at the club. Even that very morning, the French newspaper L'Equipe had reported Villa interest in St Etienne manager Christophe Galtier; 48 hours or so before, it was Jurgen Klinsmann who was being linked.
Neither of these coaches may come anywhere near Villa Park, but the assumption is that Lambert will shortly vacate his position. His future should become clearer once club owner Randy Lerner releases his eagerly-awaited statement -- whatever that will include -- come the end of the season. Whatever Lerner says, the last few weeks have been difficult for Lambert.
Such is the life of a Premier League manager; Tim Sherwood has been going through much the same experience at Tottenham. Despite presiding over a pretty impressive win ratio, he doesn't know if he'll continue as Spurs coach into the 2014-15 season. Sunday's end-of-season match at White Hart Lane could therefore be a surreal occasion, with both managers observing their final 90 minutes at their respective clubs. A subdued atmosphere on the touchline, possibly.
In contrast to Sherwood, however, Lambert's record pales significantly. Spurs and Villa, sadly for the latter, compete at other ends of the spectrum these days: Tottenham's ambition is to bang on the door of the top four at best, top six at worst. That used to be Villa's goal, too. Now it's merely to stay in the Premier League, a position Lambert confirmed during a news conference in which, more often than not, he had to fend off questions regarding both his, and Villa's immediate future.
"No. 1, I fully intend to be here next season," Lambert told the assembled media. "No. 2, my directive was to keep the team in the Premier League.
"No. 3, it's been the hardest season ever but it's never plain sailing in football management and that's why I say it's the greatest thing I've achieved."
The Villa manager also insisted that he doesn't know what Lerner will say, or when he's going to say it. Other media coverage has suggested the chairman won't make any announcement in person, instead choosing to release a worded statement via the club's website and through the PR machine. Would that be the right and proper way to reveal intentions of selling the football club, rather than fronting up and scheduling a news conference? Maybe not, but it's Lerner's club, and he can do as he chooses.
Conversely, the statement may be a gesture of continued support for Lambert, some hollow-sounding utterances about a difficult season, and some vague wording vowing to return stronger come August. We'll all find out when Randy chooses to share.
Lambert hasn't had it easy at Villa. With the club reportedly unable to entertain recruiting any players who would expect a salary of 35,000 pounds a week or more, he's been required to stretch his budget as far, and as thinly, as possible.
Some of his signings have worked, to a degree (Christian Benteke, Ron Vlaar, Ashley Westwood), while others clearly have not (Aleksandar Tonev, Antonio Luna, Niclas Helenius), and some have been barely able to feature at all through injury. (Libor Koazk, Jores Okore). Whether he has spent that money as wisely as he could have done, is a debate for another day.
It's become increasingly difficult to defend the team's record under Lambert, however, as well as a rather uninspiring brand of football. Should nothing change at Villa in the coming weeks, he'll start the new season with a heavy burden on his shoulders. He has little credit left in the bank.
To the game against Spurs, then. Victory for Villa would at least enable the team to match last season's points tally of 41, and mean the club could finish the campaign as high as 12th. That, actually, is a final placing that would have seemed perfectly acceptable 37 games ago.
Lambert has a choice in terms of his team. With Gabby Agbonlahor and Marc Albrighton expected to be fit, he could bring both players back into the starting lineup. He could also -- and this is an option which I feel would be more appreciated by Villa fans -- start with Callum Robinson and Jack Grealish, and bring a bit of much-needed freshness into the side.
Nothing screams new beginnings more than talented young players and Villa supporters might at least finish the season feeling that brighter days are around the corner. Lambert may not realise it, but turning to a couple of "the kids" would score him more points with fans than reverting to type and picking a defensive-looking team, tasked with creating chances on the counter attack.
A team such as this, for example, might just give Villa a bit of spark and flair. Even in Game 38, it's not too late to make an impression:
My lineup (4-3-1-2):
Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Clark, Bertrand; Bacuna, Westwood, Delph; Grealish; Robinson, Weimann.
Subs: Steer, Donacien, Baker, El Ahmadi, Albrighton, Helenius, Agbonlahor.