No Bent rift, says Lambert after Benteke repays gamble
Aston Villa 1 Reading 0: Even with the kind of long-term redevelopment that Paul Lambert envisages, it is necessary to win matches and Aston Villa, having predictably taken only a point from back-to-back meetings with Manchester United, Manchester City and Arsenal, needed to win this one against Reading, another side languishing in the bottom three of the Premier League.
It comes at the beginning of a sequence that also brings them up against Harry Redknapp's Queen's Park Rangers and Stoke City, the success of which may end up shaping their season. So the goal scored by their striker Christian Benteke 10 minutes from time, after 80 minutes of unfulfilled opportunities, could be an important one. Villa's win was only their third at home in the Premier League in the whole of 2012, their first since mid-September.
The result came against growing speculation over the future of Villa's record signing, the England striker Darren Bent, who was left out of Lambert's squad for the second time in four days despite having apparently recovered from an ankle injury.
Bent, who cost £24m when he moved to the Midlands from Sunderland in January last year on a four-and-a-half year contract, has started only one match in the past two months.
Yet Lambert denied again last night that there was any rift between him and the player, said to be a target for both QPR and Liverpool. The club denied a story, circulating on Twitter, that Bent had to be brought back to the stadium to take his place in the stands after initially storming out.
"I kept with the players who I used on Saturday because I thought they deserved the chance to continue," Lambert said. "I've no problem with Darren and if I had I would tell you. It is the same for him as any other player – it is up to me to look at everyone in training and pick a side I think gives us the best chance to win a game."
Yet by choosing to do without Bent's experience – and a career record of a goal every other game – Lambert seemed to be taking an enormous risk, one that was compounded by Villa's failings in front of goal before Benteke got them off the hook.
Benteke wasted an inviting chance after 17 minutes when his attempt to place the ball from only 10 yards out allowed the Reading goalkeeper Adam Federici to make a save. Then Andreas Weimann, who was set up by Benteke, fired the ball high and wide from a similarly close range.
Reading might, perhaps should, have gone ahead with Villa unable to take a grip on the contest until the last third of the opening half, when they began to mount more concerted attacks but they still looked in need of some quality near goal.
Villa's performance in a goalless draw against Arsenal last weekend, in which they did as much as their opponents to merit a win, suggested they were making progress but last night their enthusiasm was too often undermined by untidiness and imprecise passing. Reading, whose defeat at Wigan had been their first in five matches, were willing battlers, so much so that the longer the scores remained level, the more nervous Villa became.
Again, chances presented themselves for Villa after the break, but Ciaran Clark headed wide unmarked from a corner and Brett Holman, after making his own opportunity with a jinky run on the right, could only find the side netting.
But Lambert's frustrations were ended – and a more difficult post-match interrogation avoided – with 10 minutes remaining as Benteke climbed over Adrian Mariappa to head home a corner from Barry Bannan, in the process claiming his third Premier League goal since his late August move from the Belgian club Genk.
Man of the match Benteke.
Match rating 6/10.
Referee L Probert (Wiltshire).