Knocked out of the FA Cup, beaten by a League 2 team in the Carling Cup semi-finals and defeated by a relegation rival at home, Aston Villa were in turmoil during January. The first month of 2013 and the last two weeks of December – where Villa lost 8-0 to Chelsea, 3-0 to Wigan and 4-0 to Tottenham – was one of the worst periods of Paul Lambert’s managerial career, but the Scot has turned it around. Since losing to Newcastle on January 29th Villa have won four times in eight matches, and narrowly lost three times to Arsenal, Man City and Liverpool.
It is safe to say those people calling for Lambert’s head, are being proven wrong. The turn around first started with a crucial but ultimately disappointing away draw at Goodison Park. Leading Everton 3-1 with 20 minutes left, they conceded a 90th minute equaliser to draw 3-3. Initially it would have been a disappointing point for Lambert’s side but it showed they could compete with the best. In the next match they beat West Ham, with Christian Benteke scoring once again, they lost their next two but against top teams. They were valiantly beaten 2-1 at the Emirates, only thanks to an 85th minute winner and then the following week, Man City shut them out to win 1-0 at Villa Park.
It was two defeats in a row for Lambert but the character shown by his side would have told the former Norwich boss that his team could beat the drop. They more than held their own against City, and just lacked the cutting edge in the final third; otherwise they might have secured a draw. The Villains then faced a defining week. An away match against Reading on March 9th and home fixture against QPR on the 16th, realistically two wins were needed.
Going into the Reading match, Villa occupied 18th position in the Premier League table, and were only one point ahead of Reading. A goal down at the Madejski Stadium, they showed great resolve to turn it around and secure a vital 2-1 win. The following week they beat rivals Queens Park Rangers 3-2 at Villa Park to move seven points clear of the London club. The midlands side lost to Liverpool on March 31st but bounced back by defeating Stoke at the Britania Stadium to drag the Potters back into a relegation battle and further boost their own position.
Villa are still in the midst of a relegation fight but have strengthened their position significantly since January, and it’s testament to Lambert and his squad that they’ve turned it around after everyone wrote them off. With six games left it is far from certain that Aston Villa will beat the drop, but the position they find themselves in now – 16th in the table and three points ahead of Wigan in 18th – means their future is in their own hands.
If Aston Villa can stay up, the forthcoming period could be incredibly bright for them. The squad has an average age of 24.79 – the 5th youngest in the league – and they would have learnt a great deal this season, that will improve them for next year. The experience of heavy defeats and battling relegation will improve them. Also, performances like those produced at Anfield, or at the Eithad in the Carling Cup could become a regular occurrence.
The Villa Park crowd hasn’t had much to celebrate this year but can take pride from the fact that their team has tried to play football the right way, and scored one of the team goals of the season through Andreas Wiemann’s strike at Anfield. Talented youngsters like Benteke and Wiemann plus Nathan Baker, Matthew Lowton, Ciaran Clark and Ashley Westwood will all improve for next season. Add to this the NextGen series success – a European under-19 tournament that they won by beating illustrious teams like Sporting Lisbon, Ajax and Chelsea – if Lambert can implement some of those talented players into the first team squad next year, then Villa could have a very fruitful season.
Owner Randy Lerner deserves a lot credit for sticking with Lambert and could be rewarded by having one of the most exciting young teams in the Premier League next season, it might not be the worst time to be an Aston Villa fan.