Aston Villa’s 1-1 draw with Fulham must serve as a stark reminder to both fans and players that Villa aren’t out of trouble yet. With Christian Benteke having a rare off-game and Gabby Agbonlahor out with a thigh problem, Villa’s leaky defence for once weren’t bailed out by virtue of outscoring their opponents.
With just one enforced change to the team that gained high praise for such a convincing performance at Stoke this time last weekend, you’d be forgiven for being an optimistic Villa fan before kick-off. Villa’s home form however has been very poor all season, with exactly the same amount of points (17) won on their travels as at Villa Park. Perhaps no surprise then when you also consider Fulham have never won a game at Villa Park in the Premier League era, that the teams were inseparable when the full time whistle blew.
Christian Benteke has been in red hot form of late, netting 10 goals in 12 games in 2013 and scoring in each of his last four outings. I asked the question before the game of the last Villa player to score in five successive league games. Nobody knew, turns out I didn’t need to know in the end as the Belgian goal-machine had an increasingly sporadic off day. Perhaps on other days the likes of Gabby Agbonlahor or Andreas Weimann would have been there to save the day but with Agbonlahor out with an injury that we don’t yet know the extent of, and Weimann snatching at his chances, Benteke’s lacklustre performance was more important than it might have been.
Charles N’Zogbia was chosen as Gabby’s replacement and it’s one that I doubt any fan would have genuinely argued with. Despite N’Zogbia not setting Villa Park alight game after game, he is still recognisably one of the best technical players at the club and somewhat a luxury to have as a replacement. In one of his better performances of late, he was Villa’s most creative force and looked most likely to break the deadlock; were it not for the heroics of Mark Schwarzer he could have bagged a brace. Two great first half saves from the veteran Australian goalkeeper; firstly from a volley from six-yards-out and then a palm stinger from outside the box, preceded the Frenchman finally breaking the deadlock with a curling peach after picking up a poor clearance in the box.
Villa’s defensive frailties once again reared their ugly heads however, and in a game where Brad Guzan didn’t have a noteworthy save to make, Fulham got a rather fortuitous equaliser. Fabian Delph rose at the near post in an attempt to head clear a Fulham corner and got the slightest of touches send the ball past Guzan and into his own net. Far harder to take when you see that had Delph not got his touch, Guzan would have claimed unchallenged. It would be extremely harsh to blame Delph for that though, and was one of just two blemishes on another great performance from the ever improving former Leeds star – the other when he skied his effort at redemption from three-yards-out with the game nearing an end.
Villa have picked up 10 points from their last five games and much of that is down to Fabian Delph and Ashley Westwood’s new found understanding in the middle of the park; something that was looking like a far-fetched scenario when Villa’s midfield were being overrun game after game. The young Englishman has struggled with injuries since moving to Villa and never really shown his potential since his £6m transfer in 2009. Villa fans lately however, have started to see some true form after an elongated spell in the first team and can start to understand why Paul Lambert persevered when the going was tough.
Much like Delph, Nathan Baker’s form over the last few games has been particularly impressive and we’re starting to see that he could be a very useful home-grown talent for us in years to come. At just 21-years-old he recovers from mistakes very well and in a season as tumultuous as the one Villa are currently enduring, that’s essential.
After scoring one of the “own goals of the season” - which can’t be a very nice accolade - against fellow strugglers Reading, he performed brilliantly in the rest of that game and was part of the reason that the midlands side claimed an essential 3-2 win. Baker made another amateur mistake against Liverpool; sliding in on Luis Suarez and conceding a penalty when there was no immediate danger - but followed it up with a stunning performance against Stoke City in yet another essential win. The performance against Fulham was just as good, with Baker making tough but superbly timed challenges in large numbers and breaking up attack after attack for the visitors. Had it not been for his performance, perhaps Villa fans would be ruing another three points dropped, not just two.
Villa can’t afford too many more dropped points from such positions if this run in is going to go their way though; with teams around them all picking up form and points when they need to. You’d have to imagine that only six or seven points from the Sunderland game at home, and Wigan and Norwich away from home will be enough. Anything from next Mondays’ trip to Old Trafford and the visit of Chelsea to Villa Park would be a welcome bonus but hopefully not a necessity.