Premier League | Villa Park | Sun 2 Mar | 4:30pm
The Paul Lambert derby, what else?
If the sign of a good team is one that wins when they absolutely must, then Aston Villa and Norwich are among the Premier League’s best. Both on 28 points, they’re fair-set in mid-table now – albeit only four points above the drop zone – but have been on the precipice of serious relegation issues on a number of occasions, only to pull off the win that lifts any lingering doom.
ASTON VILLA FORM
- Newcastle 1-0 Aston Villa (Prem)
- Cardiff 0-0 Aston Villa (Prem)
- Aston Villa 0-2 West Ham (Prem)
- Everton 2-1 Aston Villa (Prem)
- Aston Villa 4-3 WBA (Prem)
- Norwich 1-0 Spurs (Prem)
- West Ham 2-0 Norwich (Prem)
- Norwich 0-0 Man City (Prem)
- Cardiff 2-1 Norwich (Prem)
- Norwich 0-0 Newcastle (Prem)
That must-win game is now upon Villa again, who went winless through February, scoring only once throughout the year’s shortest month. With West Ham putting together four successive wins and Crystal Palace maintaining their improved form under Tony Pulis, Lambert’s men are being drawn in by the chasing pack. Christian Benteke’s mixed season continues apace, which when you rely so heavily on one forward’s goals is a major concern.
Defensively, the Midlanders have been relatively impressive. The astute signing of Ryan Bertrand has even added an attacking dimension to the solid central pairing of Ron Vlaar and Nathan Baker. Sunday’s late Loic Remy winner against Newcastle prevented a second successive away clean sheet and, in truth, Villa rarely looked troubled until that somewhat fortuitous strike. In front of the back four, yellow card magnet Fabian Delph is much improved, while Ashley Westwood’s dead ball delivery and easily repeatable game provides a serviceable midfield anchor.
Yet, it’s at home that they must improve. Only Fulham have a worse record on their own patch than Villa and nobody has scored fewer than their 12. Whether it’s the pressure of playing in front of an increasingly nervous crowd, or a simple lack of quality, Lambert must inspire his charges to greater home consistency. One only imagines what would the reaction would be were Alex McLeish still in charge.
Norwich, meanwhile, travel to Birmingham fresh from securing three points in their own must-win fixture against Spurs last Sunday. Their own first victory since beating Hull 1-0 at Carrow Road in mid-January, one-time Barcelona botherer Robert Snodgrass’ long-range sidefoot was enough to see off Tim Sherwood’s tired-looking opponents.
Though none of Johan Elmander, Ricky van Wolfswinkel nor Gary Hooper have been able to hold down a regular starting berth, Snodgrass, Leroy Fer and Nathan Redmond provide a tricky trio of attacking midfield support, which could cause Villa problems. Murmurings of discontent in manager Chris Hughton have subsided while they lie clear of trouble, and a second successive victory would only help.
Westwood and Bertrand face late fitness tests, but should be fit. Libor Kozak, Chris Herd, Jores Okore and Charles N’Zogbia are all long-term absentees.
For the Canaries, Jonas Gutierrez is another week from fitness, with Ryan Bennett, Michael Turner and Elliott Bennett likely to return later in March.
Key battle: Ryan Bertrand vs Robert Snodgrass
Snodgrass is undoubtedly Norwich’s principal attacking threat, and Bertrand must be cute enough to snuff out the Scot’s direct running and improving final-third efforts.
Suffering from an ongoing rib problem, the on-loan Chelsea full-back has the pace to do that, but his defensive nous will be tested. If he fails to recover, deputy Joe Bennett may struggle.
LAST FIVE MEETINGS
- Norwich 0-1 Villa (Prem, Sep 13)
- Norwich 1-2 Villa (Prem, May 13)
- Norwich 1-4 Villa (LC, Dec 12)
- Villa 1-1 Norwich (Prem, Oct 12)
- Norwich 2-0 Villa (Prem, May 12)
Lambert is unbeaten (two wins and one draw) against his former team and will be determined to continue that form, given the apparent bad blood that still exists between the Scot and the Canaries. Though the immediate pressure on Hughton has eased with that Spurs win, there are still rumours of restlessness at boardroom level with the course this season has taken. Another win would be ideal.
TIPS & TRENDS
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Facts and figures
- Villa have failed to score in their last 3 games and no side has failed to score more often at home this season.
- 15 of Norwich’s 17 trips to bottom-half teams since 2012/13 have had fewer than 3 goals, with 8 having no more than 1 goal.
- Villa have drawn the first half in 8 of their last 10 home games against bottom-half teams.
- Villa have recorded 4 Draw/Win results on the Half-time/Full-time market in their last 10 home games against bottom-half teams.
Best Bet: Half Time Draw @ 2.20
More FFT Stats Zone facts • Find the best odds with Bet Butler
It’s going to be a close game, but Norwich to shade it. 1-2.