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Praying for keeps

Earlier this week Dean Saunders described Saturday's Premier League clash between Aston Villa and Southampton as one of Villa's biggest games ever and I don't think that's an exaggeration when you look at their results across the season.

Last Updated: 13/01/13 at 11:36 Post Comment

Christian Benteke: has scored six Premier League goals since signing for Villa f

Christian Benteke: has scored six Premier League goals since signing for Villa f

Dean made the comment on Sky Sports after watching Paul Lambert's side lose 3-1 to League Two Bradford in the first leg of their League Cup semi-final tie, a result that ironically was as predictable as it was startling.

Villa have won only three of their last 23 home Premier League games and if they fail to pick up any points against fellow strugglers Southampton this weekend, I just don't see how they are going to turn the corner; it's almost unthinkable that they'd become a Championship club, but they wouldn't be the first 'big' club to suffer that fate.

Things have been camouflaged in the Premier League to some degree by one excellent performance at Liverpool and a point at Swansea where they could have lost 6-0, but they've now conceded 21 goals in their last six games in all competitions.

Expectations have never been lower amongst home fans at Villa Park and I think Southampton - who won the corresponding fixture at St Mary's 4-1 - will probably go there and win. If that happens, owner Randy Lerner would surely have no option but to get the cheque book out again (and quickly) and allow Paul Lambert to buy some seasoned pros.

Strengthen

A lot of publicity suggests that Lerner has invested significant amounts of money in the club over the years - and so he has - but he's also had significant returns from a lot of the big-name players who have left the club.

After spending substantially in the summer on the likes of Christian Benteke, Ron Vlaar, Joe Bennett and Matthew Lowton, I just wonder whether he still has the passion to keep funding Villa at the same rate; to be honest, I'm not sure.

It doesn't matter how good a coach you are - and I think Lambert is a very good one - if the players aren't good enough, then you will struggle and I think Villa are in big trouble at the moment. If Lerner decides not to spend, I can only see this season ending one way.

The obvious answer is sell Darren Bent (if, indeed, he doesn't have a Villa future) and use the funds, supplemented by additional money from the owner, to strengthen the squad. But buying proven Premier League players is not easy at this time of year, which makes me wonder why experienced pros like Stephen Warnock and Alan Hutton are out on loan?

I don't buy the explanation that Villa are struggling because they have a whole raft of players on the treatment table - I don't think they are any worse off with injuries than any other Premier League side.

But one player who definitely needs a rest is Benteke; he has been Villa's shining light so far this season but he's scored only once in his last five games and that was a penalty, against Swansea. Quite simply he looks jaded, which isn't surprising because he's a young man carrying the attacking burden of a major Premier League side on his shoulders pretty much alone. That's clearly taking its toll.

Jeff's Gem of the Week

Before I name this week's winners, I must mention Bradford. I've said it before but it's worth repeating - the revival is on and it's great to see Phil Parkinson rebuilding his reputation. In his Colchester days he was regarded as one of the brightest young coaches in the country and it's great to see him on the way back after some difficult times in tough circumstances at Hull and Charlton.

But my 'Gem of the Week' is Oldham winning at Nottingham Forest in the FA Cup. This season has been a real struggle for Oldham - so much so that the majority of Paul Dickov's backroom staff, save the goalkeeping coach, have been put on 'gardening leave'. For all intents and purposes that means they've been dismissed, in my book. That must have left Paul feeling isolated and insecure, to say the least. People who know him tell me Paul's a thoroughly likeable, talented young manager and for him and his side to go to Forest and get a result in the circumstances was sensational. In fact, it was the perfect riposte to Oldham's owner and board.

Oldham, like Hartlepool, don't get the sort of gates that can sustain them at a higher level than they are playing at now and can only dream of being in the sort of position that some of their rival teams are in. Take Sheffield United, for example - a club that gets huge crowds and has just splashed out a six-figure fee on Jamie Murphy from Motherwell. That must seem like a different world.

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