Adam’s Premier League Column: Aston Villa widen the gap in five-goal thriller

Aston Villa 3 QPR 2

Aston Villa sent out a warning side to their fellow relegation-destined sides after coming out on top at Villa Park. However, they didn’t do it the easy way.

It was an end-to-end game- one that both teams could not afford to lose. It was Harry Redknapp’s rejuvenated QPR who took the lead though, this time through Jermaine Jenas, as he netted his second goal in as many games. That didn’t dampen the mood at Villa Park and, on the stroke of half-time, Gabriel Agbonlahor headed in Matthew Lowton’s in swinging cross.

I was impressed with Agbonlahor’s performance in this match actually. He was always looking at driving on, speeding up the play and making dangerous diagonal runs, which ultimately caused Rangers all sorts of problems. If he could do this week-in week-out, he could be Villa’s star-man. Although, his work-rate and approach can, at times, be questionable.

On 58 minutes, Andreas Weimann, who was been  a key part of Paul Lambert’s team,  converted a ferocious shot from the edge of the box to give Villa Park some newfound hope. However, QPR didn’t let that strike get the better of them and Andros Townsend, who scored a stunner in last weeks’ tie against Sunderland, levelled the scoring. His driving effort took the slightest of deflections off Ronald Vlaar’s boot to wrong-foot Brad Guzan in the Villa goal.

However, that wasn’t the end of the drama. Some terrific work by Weimann on the by-line enabled him to slot a pass into the path of the on-running Benteke, who coolly passed into the open net with all but ten minutes remaining.

A few weeks ago now I mentioned that I felt Queens Park Rangers had enough about them to survive in the Premier League, although I now simply feel that they have left themselves with too much to do. No doubt Aston Villa will take confidence from this vital win and, if they can keep up these levels of performances, they may just stay up.


Southampton 3 Liverpool 1

Mauricio Pochettino’s Southampton supplied the goods as they stunned in-form Liverpool at St Marys. The Saints got off to the best possible start as after six minutes, Morgan Schneiderlin  steered home after he was played through by Jay Rodriquez. Rickie Lambert, who didn’t make Roy Hodgson’s England squad, doubled their lead, sending a message out to the England manager what he’s missing out on. His free-kick took a heavy deflection off of the Reds’ wall to fool Brad Jones in goal after thirty-three minutes.

Former Inter Milan playmaker Philippe Coutinho pulled one back for the visitors before the interval, calmly slotting home after being presented a rebound as a Daniel Sturridge effort was blocked.

The Saints put in a hardworking shift against a Liverpool side who have won four out of their last four games in all competitions. They were once again rewarded for their efforts as Steven Gerrard’s lapse in concentration in the centre of the park set-up the Saints for a counter-attack. Jay Rodriquez danced his way through the Liverpool defence, his initial shot saved by Jones; however the rebound fell kindly to the former Burnley man who then tucked away.

Reds boss Brendan Rodgers said after the defeat:  “It certainly wasn’t how we have been playing in the past few weeks.

“We didn’t get going until it was 2-0 down. We conceded poor goals which has been unlike us and we are disappointed at that.”


Everton 2 Manchester City 0

The final game of this week’s column saw a depleted Man City side concede everything but the Premier League title.

The Blues, without influential players such as YayaTouré, Sergio Agϋero and Vincent Kompany, struggled to get a foothold of this match.

Everton, on the other hand, were superb. They pressed the ball and never gave City a moment on the ball which evidently presented the Toffees with some wonderful opportunities. Their first goal was courtesy of Leon Osman. It was a delightful strike from distance which gave custodian Joe Hart no chance behind the sticks. City then had a couple of chances, although Carlos Tevez and co. couldn’t take advantage.

Everton were reduced to ten-men early in the second-half as Steven Pienaar picked up a second-booking for a lunge on Man City midfielder Javi Garcia. That didn’t phase the home-side and, in second-half stoppage time, Nikica Jelavic converting an impressive counter-attacking move.

That means that City now sit fifteen points behind leaders Manchester United, after they saw off Reading at Old Trafford. It’s now all but over.


My Team of the Week


Written by Adam May

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Chelsea: The Lukaku Predicament

Around this time last year, many Chelsea fans were scratching their heads thinking “why pay 20 odd million pounds for a player who is sitting on the bench” in reference to Romelu Lukaku. Now, many of the same Chelsea fans are desperate for him to return.

Lukaku’s loan move to West Bromwich Albion has worked out better than most people imagined it would, especially with the presence of proven Premier League strikers like Peter Odemwingie as well as the experienced and cultured Markus Rosenberg. However, despite not starting particularly many games at first, Lukaku’s superb substitute appearances swiftly put him in West Brom’s starting eleven on a regular basis. Currently, the Belgian striker sits on 13 goals in the Premier League and is one of the league’s most feared strikers.

What makes this whole Lukaku saga so interesting is the fact that neither 50 million pound man Fernando Torres, nor January signing Demba Ba look anywhere near as deadly right now as Lukaku does. Torres has had yet another disappointing and highly unconvincing situation despite a decent start, while Ba has only shown flashes of the form that led to his January move to the West London club. Theoretically, Lukaku should walk straight into the Chelsea team when he returns this summer, although there are some doubts about that.

After all, many feel Chelsea managers feel they often have to play Torres in order to satisfy notoriously hard to please Roman Abramovich (see Roberto Di Matteo). Rafael Benitez has generally gone with Torres in most of the games Chelsea have played, although in some of the bigger games such as the one away to Manchester City on February 24th, he went with Ba. So far, I’d class the signing of Ba as unsuccessful.

Despite a superb debut away to Southampton in the FA cup in which he scored twice, he has been largely unimpressive, and hasn’t looked truly into the game at times. The same problem exists and has existed for over two years now with Fernando Torres;  just not being part of the game.

When Chelsea signed Ba, I thought things would be different. After all, Ba was full of confidence after a superb first half of the season at Newcastle, and there was no reason why he would need any time to develop. Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1 formation with Oscar/Moses, Hazard and Mata has a very similar setup to the one employed by Newcastle with the likes of Hatem Ben Arfa, Yohan Cabaye and Sylvain Marveaux to switch around and create.

But for some reason, Ba hasn’t found himself in many good positions. When he is in said positions he generally takes the chances, but in terms of getting them, it’s not really happening for him.

So will Lukaku be any different? I have some doubts. Lukaku is a powerful target man, who is magnificent in the air, but Chelsea’s trio do not tend to put in a great deal of crosses. Lukaku’s footwork is still top notch, but not as good as his aerial ability. In order to get the absolute most out of Lukaku, Chelsea will probably have to slightly alter their style. However, all of Chelsea’s creative players do have excellent technical ability and I see no reason why they can’t adapt.

The real issue is whether the Chelsea manager at the time will be entirely comfortable with having a then 20 year old striker leading the line while Torres sits on the bench, as I can’t see the Chelsea number nine leaving just yet.

If I were Chelsea, here’s what I would do: sell Torres, keep Ba, buy a young, bright talent such as Jackson Martinez or Léo Baptistão from Rayo Vallecano. Falcao would be too expensive and is in his prime, and I think Chelsea need a younger player. Having Lukaku as well as one of these live wire, young players would set Chelsea up perfectly for the future, and would lead to a few games for the highly rated Islam Feruz who is currently impressing immensely in the Chelsea youth team.

Bringing Lukaku back and selling Torres is definitely a risk. But to be honest, I think anyone that genuinely expects Torres to return is, essentially, kidding themselves. The presence of Torres has done little other than divide the club’s fans, and his time is up for me.

So, please Mr. Abramovich and the Chelsea manager appointed from this coming August:  Give Lukaku a chance, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, he has all the ability in the world to become Chelsea’s main man.


Written by Joshua Sodergren

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Aston Villa: The Villans make late surge to keep the Lambert plan alive

On March 1st, Aston Villa announced their accounts for 2011/2012 which gave a firm insight into their decline from successive sixth place finishes under Martin O’Neil to relegation candidates under Alex McLeish and now Paul Lambert.

Under O’Neil, the wage bill climbed to £71 million, accounting for 85% of the club’s annual turnover and, having spent £120 million on transfers over the Irishman’s four-year reign, the club posted at fourth highest, behind only Manchester City, Chelsea and Stoke.

Chairman Randy Lerner, who had grown a reputation as one of the more generous of the Premier League’s ownership gentry, turned to frugality in order to prevent the club’s finances spiralling out of control.

O’Neill was dispensed with, Stewart Downing and Ashley Young were both sold for a combined £35 million and the club’s losses for the year 2011/2012 were reduced from £54 million to £18 million. The wage bill was also cut by £13.8 million as the American severely downsized in order to safeguard the long-term future of the club.

Part of that has included the managerial transition from O’Neil to Paul Lambert via the short term reigns of Gerard Houllier and Gary Mcallister and then Alex McLeish. Lambert, who had achieved a double promotion and Premier League consolidation with little other than a shrewd knowledge of the lower leagues and an eye for a bargain, was the perfect fit as Lerner strived to eradicate the reckless days of spending £6 million on Fabian Delph.

Delph has struggled since his big money move as a 19 year old back in 2009, but he still remains at Villa Park as part of Lambert’s new generation alongside 21 year old Matthew Lowton and 22 year old Ashley Westwood, signed in the summer from Sheffield United and Crewe Alexandra respectively.

Joe Bennett, a 21 year old left-back, was signed from Middlesborough to join the likes of Ciaran Clark, Nathan Baker, Barry Bannan and Marc Albrighton, all under the age of 23, as Villa chose to build again with an emphasis on youth rather than the established star (Downing, Bent) that would have put a strain on the wage-bill.

Lerner did back Lambert enough for him to fork out £7 million for Belgian Christian Benteke, a striker, fitting the bill, at the age of 22, as ambitious young player built for the future. His 17 goals this season have been a revelation, with none more important than the winner he netted in Saturday’s hugely important victory over QPR.

Villa moved six points clear of the relegation zone with that 3-2 win to greatly allay fears that a drop into the Championship would dismantle Lambert’s long-term vision before it had barely begun.

The transition from the ill-fated year-long reign of Alex McLeish, in which Villa scarcely avoided relegation, has been a very shaky process. 56 goals have been shipped, the worst tally in the league, as Lambert has seen his team’s inexperience exploited enough for them to be mired in relegation trouble throughout the season.

Elimination in the FA Cup to Millwall of the Championship and in the League Cup to Bradford City have provided an embarrassing side-track to a poor campaign in which Lerner’s patience with Lambert has already been tested.

The potential of Westwood, Benteke, Lowton and co. together with Lambert’s appreciation for measured spending has seen Lerner refuse to buckle and resort to a managerial change for the third time in three years.

Sensible spending and continuity is now the key at Villa Park and that approach is close to reaping short-term reward as the Villa ship, immersed in choppy waters throughout the season, steers towards safety.

Ashley Westwood, the centre-midfield playmaker, has become integral to Lambert’s set-up despite having never previously consistently played higher than tier four with Crewe Alexandra. He has made 20 appearances and registered an average passing percentage of 85%.

Against QPR, having attempted 74 passes, he completed 99% of them. Despite the lack of experience alongside of him, his partnerships have been formed with Delph and Bannan as Stiliyan Petrov remains sidelined with his fight against leukaemia, he has grown into a cultured Premier League midfielder.

Such is his improvement, and the vibrant performances of Lowton, Benteke and Andreas Wiemann, that bodes well for the future. Lambert’s faith in youth has been immovable throughout, trusting them instead of the elder statesmen of Charles N’Zogbia and Darren Bent, starting a combined total of just 16 games so far this season, is now beginning to pay-off with the utmost vindication to Lerner and his now restricted spending plan which saw fit to appoint Lambert in the first place.

Westwood.... holding his ground in the top tier of English football.

Westwood…. holding his ground in the top tier of English football.

Lambert’s long-term vision which has been tasked with turning around Villa’s poor performances on the pitch under Alex McLeish together with continuing to maintain a stringent eye on Villa’s previously obscene spending plan looks like it could have earned itself a second year.

It is no less than the Villa hierarchy deserve for, while so many other clubs delve into unmanageable amounts of debt as they battle to compete a the very top, refusing to abandon with their rebuilding process.

Benteke’s winner over QPR could have been a pivotal moment in a bright future on and off the pitch.


Written by Adam Gray

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