By George Ankers
Celebrations like Bradford City's upon reaching the Capital One Cup final are the reason why so many of us love football so dearly. Yet, for every giant-killer, there must be a giant's corpse. It will be hard for Aston Villa to see the romantic side.
Paul Lambert drew criticism for making a sideways career move when he left behind all his good work at Norwich City to join Villa in the summer. At this stage, it looks instead to have been a downward one.
The former Canaries boss has avoided plenty enough scorn simply for not being Alex McLeish – and, though they are in a worse position statistically than they were at this point last season, Lambert's side are nowhere close to the soul-sapping unwatchability of the 2011-12 vintage. Their ineptitude is of naivety, not cynicism.
It is still, however, ineptitude.
A season of humiliations
||Southampton 4-1 Villa
||Man City 5-0 Villa
||Chelsea 8-0 Villa|
||Villa 0-4 Tottenham
||Villa 0-3 Wigan
||Bradford 3-1 Villa
||Villa 2-1 Bradford
Those few older heads who have not been ostracised by the Scot's regime are not providing the reliability upon which the younger contingent need to be able to bank.
Ron Vlaar, recruited by Lambert to be his captain, sets the tone but his criminally vacant marking at a corner allowed James Hanson to head home the goal that killed the tie. Gabriel Agbonlahor, who was briefly made captain before the Dutchman, once again offered nothing and less yet continues to be given all the chances that should really be extended to Darren Bent.
Charles N'Zogbia and Stephen Ireland each had, in occasional shots, glimpses of their quality against Bradford but neither makes a habit of exerting any regular influence on any game. And these are Lambert's key men, the old faithful?
Were it not for the ebullient power of Christian Benteke, whose signing is by several factors the manager's best contribution, Villa would be well and truly sunk by now. Yet even he, despite his priceless rampages in the opponent's box, exposes his team when defending his own from set-pieces.
The Villans' unfluctuating refusal to put up any kind of fight against corners and free kicks under Lambert is a shock. Young they may be but a basic marking procedure could be taught to a group of small dogs in as many months as it has taken this team to stand so still.
That they should be so poor in this regard is hard to understand. Lambert is not a bad manager; Norwich's rapid ascent through the leagues under him was no accident and their comfortable survival last season no fluke.
Indeed, scoring a significant proportion of their goals from set-pieces was something of a trademark for the Glaswegian's Canaries. There is no question that he recognises their importance, and it makes his failure to instil any basic comprehension of the subject in his squad a mystery. Perhaps he tried too hard to fulfil his reputation of finding hidden gems in the football league, or perhaps he is simply astrologically incompatible with this group of players. It does happen.
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There is no sense that the 43-year-old has a hold over his squad. He does not have a regular 'best XI' because he cannot scrape together even a good one. Villa should have been tearing at Bradford like wild hounds before and after Hanson's goal – instead they were timid as mice before and horribly cowed after.
The chance to contest a final at Wembley was realistically their only opportunity for any kind of success this season. It is now blown and the humiliating nature of their failure is only likely to further break this fragile team's already wounded spirit.
Survival is now the only target; Villa are in real danger of ending their 25-year stay in the top flight. They are only a point above the drop, with Reading and QPR showing signs of revival and Wigan yet to embark on their now-traditional late-season miracle run.
Lambert's side are no better than any of them and one cannot see from where they will find the inspiration to improve. His only saving grace between now and the end of the season may be that he has built a team so poor that nobody else could likely do any better.
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