LONDON — Aston Villa's winless run finally came to an end, stopping at nine, as Paul Lambert's men secured a vital 1-0 victory at Selhurst Park on Tuesday evening. Christian Benteke's moment of brilliance, robbing Scott Dann before curling a delicious effort around the outstretched paw of Julian Speroni, was the difference in a tight, dramatic affair.
Apart from the obvious benefits of a three-point haul, lifting Villa into the lofty position of 12th, fans will be most pleased with the grit and determination shown. Against Southampton and Burnley, Villa have taken the lead but failed to hold on; it was third-time lucky in Croydon, and that ability to "finish" was what pleased Lambert the most.
"We were terrific," the Scot enthused to reporters after the game. "[Alan] Hutton deserves massive compliments. Jores Okore and Ciaran Clark, along with Brad Guzan as a unit: outstanding.
"That's his [Okore's] third game in quick succession, and he's not played for 14 months. The two have certainly stepped up. It's going to be hard to break into this side, but that's the game of football; you have to push to get into the side. [Carlos] Sanchez came on, and he was terrific."
The frostiness felt around the pitch before kick-off felt its way into the match early on, with both sides struggling to get into gear and pass the ball. Joe Cole pulled his hamstring in the fifth minute, raising questions over potential mismanagement in his fitness, and that removed any potential fluency from the away side's game.
After Christian Benteke opened the scoring with a piece of wonderful solo skill, Palace responded with 10 minutes of heavy pressure. Wilfried Zaha and Yannick Bolasie were both found early and often in dangerous positions, but a complete and utter lack of end product spared Villa from conceding immediately.
Palace pushed in the second half, and the home crowd, bemusingly, grew irate with referee Michael Oliver for correctly booking Fraizer Campbell after he clattered Brad Guzan. The frustration from the crowd seeped into the players, and it all became a little too desperate.
A couple of dangerous low crosses somehow evaded every home player late on, and Villa claimed three points. Dealing with the demons of Southampton and Burnley, where Nathaniel Clyne and Danny Ings stung them late, was key.
Villa perpetually perform the tango with relegation every year but are yet to slip down a division for a variety of reasons. In 2012-13, it was because of Benteke's incredible goalscoring streak; in 2013-14, it was because there were three worse teams.
This season, Villa's platform is yet to be determined, but based on the first 13 games, it wouldn't be illogical to suggest a sturdy defensive effort will be heavily involved.
Unlike any of the other Lambert seasons, Villa have a stingy, hardworking defence. Okore is a monster, Ron Vlaar a World Cup medalist, Philippe Senderos surprisingly decent still, Aly Cissokho a mercurial blocker of crosses and Alan Hutton a full-back reborn.
Offensively, the full-backs struggle, and Okore is the only one willing to play passes forward and between the lines. That puts a lot of pressure on Benteke, but if he can steal solo goals like he did on this occasion, that may be all Villa need.
Particularly impressive on the night was the Dane, Okore. It's baffling as to why he hasn't entered the XI earlier this season and has only been given a shot due to injuries to Senderos, Vlaar and Nathan Baker.
It was Okore who put in timely blocks and out-muscled the Palace attackers with ease, and it was he who refrained from testing the referee's patience with challenges in the box. Crystal Palace threw the kitchen sink at Aston Villa on Tuesday; Okore, and company, said no.