Express & Star

Fulham v Aston Villa: Unai Emery forced to test full depth of ravaged squad

This next month is shaping up to be the most challenging period of Unai Emery’s Villa reign to date.


In many respects pressure levels should be nowhere near what they were when the Spaniard first walked through the doors 15 months ago to inherit a team perched just above the Premier League relegation zone.

Yet Villa’s extraordinary success since has seen expectation levels soar to the point the past month can only be viewed as a disappointment, sparking fears this most promising of seasons is at risk of fizzling out.

The problem is not so much Villa’s varied form, than an injury list now threatening to overwhelm Emery’s squad.

Last weekend’s 2-1 defeat to Manchester United, hailed by the head coach as his team’s second best performance of the campaign behind December’s superb victory over Manchester City, wasn’t short on positives.

“Keep playing like that and we will win more than we lose,” remarked captain John McGinn in the immediate aftermath.

But then came news of Boubacar Kamara’s season-ending knee injury, which was then followed by Diego Carlos picking up a hamstring problem in training.

It means that, for the fourth match running, Emery will be required to field a reshuffled backline.

The one named at Fulham tomorrow, the first of three matches against teams in the lower half of the table, is likely to be different to any other seen this season. Clement Lenglet and Pau Torres, the latter himself having played just 30 minutes in two months due to ankle problem, among the only available centre-backs.

Calum Chambers, a player deemed surplus to requirements by Emery during the January transfer window, who has not played a single minute in the Premier League this season and who didn’t even make the bench against United, is now a viable back-up. Chambers spent a season playing for the Cottagers in central midfield, an area where Emery also finds himself short following the injury to Kamara.

Of all the players Villa have seen sidelined this season, the France international is the most difficult to replace. That is even more so the case following the decision to let Leander Dendoncker depart on loan to Lazio.

Emery sanctioned the latter move in the belief Tim Iroegbunam offered more in the short and long-term and the 20-year-old is now guaranteed more chances to impress.

For the moment, however, Kamara’s loss is likely to mean a different role for McGinn.

Thrust into attack alongside Ollie Watkins against United, the skipper will now be required to play deeper with the return to fitness and form of Jacob Ramsey providing a rare and timely boost.

Emery has never made injuries an excuse, insisting his squad had the depth to cope.

One way or the other, this next month may prove it.