Reinvigorate the team, revive the fortunes and get Villa Park rocking was Paul Lambert’s mandate when he took over as Aston Villa boss. Simply avoiding relegation will do.
Reinvigorate the team, revive the fortunes and get Villa Park rocking was Paul Lambert’s mandate when he took over as Aston Villa manager. Simply avoiding relegation will do now.
The Holte End were more concerned with the three points than the three Rs against West Ham, and relief was palpable as the claret and blues registered their first Premier League victory since the middle of December.
Lambert has calculated his side require a minimum of five wins to beat the drop and, with trips to Arsenal and Manchester City in their next two games, a victory here was essential. It was one that – thanks to results a day previous – catapulted them out of the relegation zone up to 17th place and temporarily lifted the cloud hanging over Villa Park heading into a mini break.
They are not out of the woods yet by any stretch, but the confidence acquired from this match must now provide the springboard to better things. It simply has to.
Villa undoubtedly have enough talent in their squad to get out of trouble and they must show the same iron will they showed against the Irons in their remaining 14 games of the season.
In Charles N’Zogbia and Christian Benteke they have two players who are at the top of their respective games and with a much-improved defensive showing here the signs are encouraging. With Gabby Agbonlahor and Karim El Ahmadi both ruled out through illness Villa boss Lambert made three changes from the side that surrendered a two-goal lead to Everton.
Nathan Baker, Fabian Delph and Jordan Bowery all came into the side with Joe Bennett dropped to the bench although there was no place in the matchday squad for Stephen Ireland for a second week.
Villa flew out of the blocks and missed a golden opportunity to open the scoring in the second minute of the game with the worst miss since Ronny Rosenthal blazed over the crossbar for Liverpool in 1992.
Benteke cut in from the left flank and drilled a low shot from the edge of the penalty area which was spilled by West Ham keeper Jussi Jaaskelainen and fell to Andreas Weimann.
The Austria striker, usually one of Villa’s best finishers, simply had to place the ball into an empty net from six yards out, but, in an attempt to add that bit of panache, curled the ball round the post instead of into the bottom corner. It turned out to the be the highlight of an otherwise ugly first period of half-chances in which Sam Allardyce’s side were content to park the bus and soak up the pressure.
Matthew Taylor found some space to cross for Andy Carroll in the 31st minute but the on-loan Liverpool forward was unable to generate sufficient power with his header and Villa keeper Brad Guzan claimed comfortably. Ciaran Clark almost put through his own net as he tried to cut out Guy Demel’s low cross from the right seven minutes later but Guzan reacted to gather.
West Ham had a glimmer of an opening shortly before the break when Joe Cole played the ball in for Carroll on the edge of the box only for his miscue to deceive Kevin Nolan. Both sides were much improved after the interval and West Ham felt they should have had a penalty when Ron Vlaar put Carroll under pressure from a high ball into the box although the West Ham forward went down a little too easily. West Ham continued to pose the greater threat in the early stages of the second half and Clark twice cleared dangerous balls into the six-yard box. Lambert made a double change as he introduced Darren Bent and Simon Dawkins for the confidence-drained Weimann and the ineffective Bowery and the change sparked some life into Villa as N’Zogbia whistled a shot over the crossbar in the 65th minute.
A minute later Bent made a vital clearance on the line to block Carroll’s shot after the home side had failed to clear a corner. It was a crucial moment and Villa got the break they needed in the 74th minute when N’Zogbia was brought down by a clumsy challenge from Mark Noble inside the box. Benteke, who has looked confident from the spot, stepped up and calmly sent Jaaskelainen the wrong with a low finish into the corner of the net. The claret and blues doubled their lead from a free-kick four minutes later after Bent was fouled by James Tomkins on the edge of the penalty area.
N’Zogbia expertly curled the ball up and over the West Ham wall and into the top-right corner of the net past the despairing dive of Jaaskelainen to score his first league of the season.
West Ham pulled a goal back in the 87th minute when Cole whipped ball into the area which skimmed the head of Ashley Westwood and beat the dive of Guzan to nestle in the corner of the net. Cue panic stations for the remainder of the game. The Irons peppered the Villa goal in the final few minutes but keeper Guzan made a brilliant double save in injury time to deny Nolan’s near-post shot and Carlton Cole’s header.
Lambert remarked afterwards that Villa had “broken the camel’s back” after they held on to claim the win.
Mixed metaphors are still a lot more preferable to defensive mix-ups.
By Timothy Abraham