Hard work ahead
Aston Villa may have climbed out of the relegation zone with victory over West Ham, but question marks remain as to whether they can avoid relegation from the Premier League.
By Rob Parrish - Follow me on Twitter @skysportsrobp
Last Updated: 10/02/13 5:29pm
Paul Lambert had billed Aston Villa's run-in as 13 cup finals as they battled to save their Premier League status, with the first of those ticked off as a success following their 2-1 triumph over West Ham at Villa Park.
But with Reading just one point adrift in the bottom three and Wigan also within striking distance, there is still much work to be done to prevent one of the Premier League's founder members from losing their place among the elite.
Lambert's policy this season has been to stick with his young charges, and there was no change to that approach against West Ham, with former Chesterfield striker Jordan Bowery handed his first Premier League start, while Nathan Baker was recalled and Fabian Delph returned from an ankle injury. Darren Bent was, yet again, forced to settle for a place on the bench.
Joe Cole returned to the starting line-up for West Ham, while on-loan Wolfsburg defender Emanuel Pogatetz was given a first start by Sam Allardyce. The visitors adopted a 3-4-3 line-up with Cole and Nolan pushed forward in support of Andy Carroll, while James Tomkins and Joey O'Brien began the game alongside Pogatetz in a three-man backline.
The main reason for Bent's continued absence from Villa's starting XI can be attributed to Lambert's preference for a lone frontman, a role which is occupied by Christian Benteke. But with the game still goalless in the second period he sent on Bent and went with two up front. Just 15 minutes later, Villa were 2-0 up, although Bent's most notable contribution was clearing off his own line from Carroll.
West Ham's intentions were plain, and predictable, from the outset. They looked to hit the imposing figure of Carroll as early as possible and exploit the weaknesses in Villa's defence which have left them languishing at the wrong end of the table. But Ciaran Clark marshalled the England striker well, with Carroll's touch on the ground also letting him down.
Lambert made a double change in the 63rd minute which swung the match towards the home side, with Bowery and Andreas Weimann, who never really recovered from his shocking early miss, being replaced by Bent and Simon Dawkins. Charles N'Zogbia limped out of the action late on with January signing Yacouba Sylla given his first taste of Premier League action.
Allardyce's first switch was forced on him midway through the first half as O'Brien was forced out following a crunching challenge with Weimann, with Guy Demel slotting into the back three. His second was to send on Ricardo Vaz Te in place of Matt Taylor moments after Villa's double change, and his last throw of the dice saw Carlton Cole thrust on for Mark Noble after going a goal down.
Mark Clattenburg had a solid afternoon, getting the penalty decision right as N'Zogbia was tripped by Noble and, despite fervent West Ham protests, the award of the free-kick for the second after Tomkins' challenge on Bent was correct too. There were a flurry of yellow cards towards the end of the match, but the official was always in control and clear with his instructions to the players.
Clark knew he would be in for a busy afternoon with Carroll in direct opposition and the 23-year-old can be proud of his afternoon's work as he refused to be bullied by the on-loan Liverpool striker. Clark also produced two important clearances from under his own bar in the second half and will need to remain on top of his game over the final dozen matches of the season.
Joe Cole had a hand in West Ham's goal as his ball into the box looped home off the head of Ashley Westwood. But the former Liverpool player had a mixed afternoon, with his delivery from set pieces often letting him down. There were too many occasions when his corners either failed to beat the first defender or went too deep to the far post - such a waste given Villa's previous frailties.
This victory was just the shot in the arm Aston Villa needed as they claimed their first three point haul since December 15th. But their next five matches see them take on Arsenal, Manchester City, Reading, QPR and Liverpool. The games against their relegation rivals will be crucial to their prospects of survival, while a final day showdown against Wigan could yet prove pivotal.
West Ham should be relatively satisfied with a mid-table berth on their return to the Premier League, but the East London outfit are being let down by their form on the road, with nine defeats from their 13 matches and a paltry eight goals scored on their travels. As Allardyce pointed out in the wake of this defeat, they need to convert their chances or they will face further disappointments.