Aston Villa Manager Paul Lambert Must Bite Bent Bullet to Reach Cup Final

Ian RodgersWorld Football Staff WriterJanuary 7, 2013

Darren Bent returned to the Aston Villa starting line-up on Saturday.
Darren Bent returned to the Aston Villa starting line-up on Saturday.Stu Forster/Getty Images

Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert has endured a testing time in recent weeks after watching his young side fall apart over the Christmas period.

The Midlands club were woeful in the eight-goal demolition at Chelsea two days before Christmas Day, but surpassed that with an even worse display at home to Tottenham on Boxing Day, when four goals rattled past goalkeeper Brad Guzan.

To make matters even worse, fellow Premier League strugglers Wigan Athletic comfortably claimed a 3-0 win at Villa Park on December 29. Many home supporters left the ground when Arouna Kone hit the Latics' third of the afternoon.

Laudably, Lambert had persevered with his young players and appeared to be reaping the rewards with big wins over Norwich and at Liverpool earlier last month.

However, the lack of experience took its toll over the Christmas period and the re-introduction of Darren Bent, Charles N'Zogbia and Shay Given for the FA Cup third-round tie against Ipswich helped to prevent further embarrassment at the hands of the Championship side.

Christian Benteke has been a tremendous find for Lambert this season. His 14 goals from 29 appearances have been a sliver of hope for the Villans.

However, the Belgian striker has struggled in recent weeks, ploughing a lone furrow up front as his teammates commit to more defensive duties.

Enter England international Bent—for his first start since mid-September after an ankle injury. Enter N'Zogbia—who has missed training for the last six weeks with a knee problem.

Villa looked like a team transformed.

With the former Wigan winger playing a more central role behind Bent, Villa looked to be a far more penetrative proposition. N'Zogbia's through ball for the striker's opening goal had a mark of class which had been notably absent from recent matches.

Defensive frailties still allowed Ipswich to take the lead, but Given produced two fine saves to deny Aaron McLean and Aaron Cresswell on Saturday.

Villa have denied that Bent's lack of involvement is due to the club not wanting to pay out more to Sunderland as part of the fee for the 28-year-old. Bent signed for a club-record £18 million, which could rise to £24 million.

Bent's game on Saturday was his 48th for the club. Speculation suggests the forward was not being played because 50 matches would trigger a further payment to the Black Cats.

That does not appear to be the case, which makes his exile from the team before Saturday's win all the more confusing, especially considering Lambert named Bent club captain in the summer.

Whatever the reason for Lambert's reluctance to play Bent, his inclusion for the Capital One Cup semifinal first leg against Bradford City on Tuesday night is crucial.

Prior to the weekend FA Cup tie, it was arguable that the League Two side were favorites to win at their home ground.

The re-emergence of Bent, N'Zogbia and Given will ensure that possibility remains as unlikely as a full explanation of the striker's absence from the team.