How will Aston Villa cope without Benteke?
Villa fans couldn't believe their eyes as they watched the ticker tape roll past on Sky Sports News on Thursday with the devastating news that striker Christian Benteke will be out for six months.
It's terrible news for the player whose World Cup dreams now lay in tatters, but now Villa, who are sitting fairly precariously above the relegation zone on 34 points, need to work out how to win without their star player.
Benteke hasn’t been as prolific as last year, but he’s still easily our top scorer with 11 goals. That might not be a lot, but when you consider Villa’s next best scorer is Bacuna on five - and their entire forward line has notched 10 between them - it could easily be time to sound the alarm bells. Especially when you consider Libor Kozak, Villa’s other big striker, who hasn’t exactly set the world alight but has come up with a four goals, is also out for the season.
The players who could fill in for Benteke, not necessarily in the same position but could see themselves being called up in to the first team at the Belgian’s expense, would be Marc Albrighton, Nicklas Helenius, Alekander Tonev, Grant Holt or Jordan Bowery.
Not exactly the most thrilling selection but you have to work with what you’ve got.
Bowery came from Chesterfield and no-one had really heard of him. It was the start of Lambert’s policy of buying young, inexpensive players, but he hasn’t really done anything since he arrived. He was loaned out to Doncaster Rovers in February and to be fair he has never been played as out and out striker when he has featured, but it would be a huge shock if he filled the void.
Since Holt came to Villa on loan he has done absolutely nothing. It’s not having a go at him it’s just stating a fact. He did feature very briefly in a forward role against Stoke without getting a touch but he was isolated so we still don’t have a clue if he can produce any of the form he showed while playing for Norwich. He is, however, one of Lambert’s golden boys so a start against Fulham today would not be surprising.
Tonev has been openly criticised by Lambert for his lack of improvement since signing for the club, but he still clearly sees something in him because he always features, even if it’s just on the bench.
Why Lambert has only singled out Tonev for not performing this season is a bit of a head-scratcher because he could have moaned in the same way about most the squad. But if Lambert decided to revert for a 4-4-2 today Tonev could find himself with a rare chance to prove he’s better than he’s shown so far in his short Villa career.
Despite showing quite a bit of early pre-season form Helenius has been completely out of favour this season. He even bagged one in the FA Cup when Villa were knocked out by Sheffield United, but for some reason Lambert has not liked what he’s seen.
When you’ve got to try and force your way back into the team by getting passed Gabby and Benteke, it clearly not going to be easy. But when Lambert then goes out and spends about £7 million on Kozak, who has looked hungry but pretty ordinary, and then brings in Holt, who was struggling for form in the Championship, you really would start wondering why you signed for Villa?
Perhaps Lambert has a plan and doesn’t want to play him until he’s settled in the country properly because he's still in his early twenties. Having said that it would be good to see if he could cause some trouble against a weak Fulham defence, but it’s doubtful he’ll even make the bench.
That leaves Albrighton who surely must start today. He’s been easily Villa’s most creative player despite only making bit-part appearances all season and was even sent out on loan at one point.
Lambert appears to have seen the error of his ways and has turned to Albrighton in recent weeks but he still seems to want to play him in the middle.
Albrighton is a great home-grown talent and an out-and-out winger. There isn’t much call for wingers these days but when Villa set themselves up playing 4-3-3, he slots into that wide position perfectly.
For me Villa have to go with Gabby playing up front alone, with Albrighton and Weimann out wide.
Gabby has shown he can do it when called on and the game against Fulham really is a must win because if we lose that will be three defeats on the bounce.
We also still have to play Hull City, Crystal Palace and Swansea, which are all six-pointers. The last thing we can do is mope about Benteke getting injured, who of course is also going to miss the World Cup, which must be so hard take. If you wanted to be really harsh you could argue it's actually helped Villa because it's unlikely he'll be leaving anyway now this summer.
We need the team to pull together and attack Fulham at Villa Park the way they should attack teams every home game.
That’s easier said than done and Villa’s home form is still one of the worst in Premiership, but if we go with an attacking mindset we should still get a vital win over Fulham.
Hopefully we can then starting looking up the table again rather than over our shoulders because with Spurs and Man City away to finish the season, it could still be a very hairy end for Villa.
Article by James Fisher