5 Things Paul Lambert Must Do to Keep Aston Villa in the Premier League
Aston Villa have not been relegated from the top flight of English football for 26 years. It has only ever happened to them five times in their long and illustrious history.
The last time it happened, in May 1987, they finished the season rock bottom, 10 points from safety.
It was their first relegation for 17 years and, astonishingly, came only five years after winning the European Cup.
Wind the clock on a quarter of a century and Villa are staring into the abyss once again. Villa have nine games to save themselves from dropping into the Championship and foregoing on their slice of the new multi-billion pound TV deal, conservatively estimated to be worth around £60 million per club.
It has been a real mess at Villa Park ever since Martin O'Neill walked out on the eve of the 2010/11 season.
Paul Lambert is the fourth manager since then to sit in the dugout and, in his first season, must head off the crisis.
His side are three points clear of the bottom three, but what must he do over the remainder of the season to make sure Villa survive?
Keep Christian Benteke Scoring
Michael Regan/Getty Images
Now that Villa's owner Randy Lerner has staple-gunned his wallet closed, money is scarce at Villa and what cash is on offer has to be spent wisely.
When Villa shelled out seven million pounds on striker Christian Benteke, they could not afford for the 21-year-old to fail.
Fortunately for Villa, he hasn't.
Benteke has been brilliant. He has scored 12 goals and laid on four others (Whoscored.com). He is Villa this season, and Lambert does not need anyone to tell him how vital Benteke is. He already says the Belgian can be "anything he wants to be."
Benteke will need some help with the burden of keeping Villa afloat, but if he stays fit and in form, they have a great chance of keeping clear of trouble.
Reinvigorate the Club Enigmas Like Darren Bent
Stu Forster/Getty Images
The last time Villa flirted with relegation in January 2011, Lerner splashed out a cool £23 million on England striker Darren Bent.
Speculation over his future at the club became rife as a result, and what happens to him in the summer is still open to debate.
Bent has started only seven games this season and scored twice. He has been seen so seldom at Villa Park this season you might struggle to remember who is he (he is the one on the right in the picture, incidentally)
Bent's goal-scoring record remains excellent. Fitting him into a system that accommodates him and Christian Benteke is the challenge, but it is one that could ignite the fight.
There are others in the Villa squad who could also do with upping their games. Charles N'Zogbia has never fully lived up to the hype of his big-money move from Wigan in July 2011. He has shown it in fits and starts but needs to be much more consistent.
You could also put Fabian Delph and Stephen Ireland in the same bracket.
If Lambert can get the enigmas performing, Villa have the quality to stay in the division.
Get the Fans Behind the Team
Tony Marshall/Getty Images
Viila's attendances have been falling steadily for the last couple of years. When you consider the economic situation and how much the team has been struggling, it is not much of a surprise.
All supporters want to see winning and, ideally, attractive football, and that has not been seen from the Holte End since the days of Martin O'Neill.
Alex McLeish's sacking at the end of the 2011/12 season ended a tortuous 11 months at Villa Park, and it will take some time before all the alienated fans feel like coming back.
Villa are mid-table in terms of average attendances, and that is a worry for a ground that holds 42,000.
There has been precious little to entice the punters back, but with the form on the rise and massive games to come at Villa Park, the club are more desperate than ever for the crowds to come back.
Win Their Six-Pointers
Christopher Lee/Getty Images
Villa's three-point cushion to the relegation zone actually makes Paul Lambert the envy of at least three other managers. What Harry Redknapp, Roberto Martinez and whoever ends up taking over at Reading would give to be in Lambert's shoes.
Of the nine games to play, five of them are at home, and none is bigger or more important that their clash with Queens Park Rangers on Saturday.
It may even come down to the last day of the season—and where are Villa then? Away at Wigan.
Win both of these six-pointers and Lambert can plan for another top-flight campaign.
Keep on Believing
Christopher Lee/Getty Images
It sounds obvious, but you should never underestimate the power that confidence can play in a relegation battle.
You do not have to be the most talented, most creative or the most dogged side to survive, but if you have belief, you can achieve anything.
Villa's mini run of form has come at just the right time. Their win at Reading was their first on the road since that epic night at Anfield in December 2012 and did wonders for their morale and confidence as they went clear of the bottom three.
In a season that has seen that confidence splinter into a trillion pieces thanks to some thumping defeats—most notably at Chelsea, Villa have to feed off whatever scraps they can.
They are in charge of their own destiny still, and if they can hold their nerve, they can do it.
Villa simply have to believe it is still possible.