FA Cup exit exposes Aston Villa weaknesses

Prior to his side’s FA Cup meeting with Sheffield United, Aston Villa manager Paul Lambert dug a hole for himself with comments about the importance of the competition for Premier League clubs. That hole was made much deeper on Saturday as Villa found themselves losing the tie 2-1, and thus became the victims of arguably the biggest shock of third round weekend.

Not only did Lambert have to face some tough questioning after the game on his view of the FA Cup, he also had to reflect on another toothless home performance containing more of the unimaginative, unproductive football which has been served up in inept displays against Manchester United and Crystal Palace over the course of the last month.

One embarrassing fact about Saturday’s result is that Villa’s starting line-up was surely too good for a League One outfit. Only three changes were made from the priceless New Year’s Day victory at Sunderland, with Jed Steer given a chance in goal and wingers Aleksandar Tonev and Marc Albrighton also handed starts.

Albrighton was probably the standout performer in a claret and blue shirt, but there was very little to cheer for the supporters, who made their feelings known at the final whistle as Villa were once again knocked out of a competition by lower league opponents.

The third-tier strugglers were worthy winners. They coped relatively comfortably with much of what Villa threw at them, and possessed a goal threat at the other end. Indeed, while the first goal did take a sizeable deflection there can be no complaints about the Blades’ late winner, with Ryan Flynn curling a fine shot into the far corner.

The only positive to come from the afternoon was Nicklas Helenius pulling Villa briefly level with his first goal for the club, converting a loose ball from just inside the penalty area. The tall Danish striker has had few opportunities since arriving in the summer, but this could be his breakthrough. He may even carry more responsibility over the coming weeks and months, after Libor Kozak picked up a long-term injury.

And Villa desperately need Christian Benteke firing again. Last season’s 23-goal top scorer missed two more decent chances on Saturday as he continues to look a shadow of his former self. His goal drought has now been extended to nearly four months and is showing no signs of coming to an end.

Not that he is regularly provided with quality service, however. Whereas last season Villa were vibrant and showed clear attacking intent, this time around they have resorted to attrition, and unfortunately it has made Villa’s lack of a creative player with the ability to pull off incisive passes all the more noticeable.

The transfer window offers Lambert the chance to do something about his team’s problems going forward, but the best options are not always available in January. Reinforcements are needed though, or else Villa will continue to find it difficult to score goals.

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