Is it ‘do or die’ for Aston Villa?

Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert

On May 14 2012, the entire country was battered with gale-force winds after every Aston Villa supporter let out a collective sigh of relief. The news that the much-loathed figure of Alex McLeish had departed was met with rapturous applause, especially when Paul Lambert was announced as his replacement, having just guided a mediocre Norwich City to unimaginable heights.

Alas, six months later, the club is still wallowing at the wrong end of the table after securing just four Premier League victories all season while boasting the worst goal difference in the division. A demoralising festive period saw the Villans concede a startling 15 goals during three consecutive defeats in which they also failed to score. A potentially season-defining set of fixtures remain in January, but can Lambert’s young side finally fulfil their potential?

A number of underachieving clubs have already flexed their financial muscle during the transfer window, in an attempt to reverse their ailing fortunes. Unfortunately Villa cannot afford this luxury, with Lambert revealing he can only bring in ‘on or two’ players this month. A burning desire for loan signings has also been extinguished, with chairman Randy Lerner refusing to substitute the wages of any temporary solutions.

Lambert can have no cause for complaint after frittering away his transfer budget during the summer. Of the eight new faces he drafted in for a combined figure of nearly £20m, only man-mountain Christian Benteke can be considered a success. Having spent well over £200m in six years, it’s no surprise Lerner seems reluctant to dig further into his pocket.

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Two years ago, Lerner caved into the demands of former manager Gerard Houllier and funded the £18m+ purchase of Darren Bent. The move effectively helped steer this sinking ship away from the drop but there will be no repeat performance this time round, with supporters and staff both in agreement that the club cannot risk their financial future.

In truth, the accounts have slipped further into the red ever since the ‘successful’ reign of Martin O’Neill. The club did achieve three successive sixth-placed finishes, but never managed to qualify for the Champions League or win a trophy and was therefore unable to sustain its expensive pursuit for glory.

O’Neill is often credited with the profitable signings of Ashley Young, James Milner and Stewart Downing, but few remember the £8.5m dumped on Nigel Reo-Coker or the £10m on ‘future England defender’ Curtis Davies. The club’s wage bill has been slashed but still carries the likes of Alan Hutton and Stephen Warnock, while fellow detrimental signings Charles N’Zogbia and Stephen Ireland have hindered rather than helped proceedings.

There is further bad news in the money-saving quest to find a buyer for Darren Bent, especially since Harry Redknapp finally lured Loic Remy to London. If a suitable destination fails to materialise he has to be allowed back into the first-team. Villa have scored just 17 goals this term – the joint lowest in the league – and even though Bent’s immobile presence goes against everything Paul Lambert is trying to implement in his new side, his name will still regularly dress the scoresheet.

With Villa unable to buy their way out of trouble, Lambert must revive his squad of adolescent starlets struggling to cope with the pressures of the Premier League. Unfortunately his inexperienced defence, which had an average age of just 22 in the defeat to Southampton, is in desperate need of experience. Never did I think the likes of Richard Dunne or Ron Vlaar retuning from injury would be deemed so important for a top-flight club.

Lambert’s insistence on gifting opportunities to lower league players proved fruitful with the Canaries but his team lacks the grit and cohesion of a side that has battled its way up through the Championship. While the likes of Anthony Pilkington continue to play above and beyond all expectation, I can’t think of a single Villa player that is currently playing at the top of their game.

In a recent poll, 53% of voters were convinced Villa would be relegated, a split-decision that serves to embody people’s perception of the club. There is undeniable potential within the squad, which rose to the surface in the memorable 3-0 victory at Anfield but their inability to find consistency will inevitably end in disaster.

The prolonged absence of captain Stiliyan Petrov is a painful reminder of past glories but the distinct lack of fight displayed by the current group of players is arguably more painful. The supporters are subdued yet restless as the club drifts somewhat aimlessly from one match to the next and the current stale atmosphere is in stark contrast to the air of optimism that exists among every other relegation candidate in the league.

The upcoming fixture against West Brom is rather daunting considering the pair’s contrasting league positions and while the cup games offer a nice distraction, the prospect of overturning the scoreline against Bradford and a trip to the New Den will be anything but a reprieve. At present, the club are the only side still competing in every competition they’ve entered but fans will only be satisfied if they are still in the Premier League come May.