Aston Villa desperate for goals from hitman Christian Benteke
Aston Villa travel to Crystal Palace tonight hoping to revive some of the early-season momentum they have squandered over the last two months.
Since manager Paul Lambert was handed a four-year contract extension in September, Villa have taken just three points - all draws - from nine games. Their early form - three wins and a draw from their first four league games - seems like the exception to the rule and this season does not look likely to produce much more than either of Lambert's first two campaigns at the club, both of which saw Villa finish 15th.
Hopes that this time might be different were due, in part, to the arrival of Roy Keane as Lambert's assistant in the summer, but he departed last week.
Now Villa's season does not look very different from the last one, or the one before that, with reliance on the form and fitness of Christian Benteke.
Their leading striker was out for six months with an Achilles injury sustained at the end of March and he had only recently returned - and not scored yet - when he was sent off in the 2-1 home defeat to Tottenham last month. Lambert talked up the importance of Benteke's return from suspension yesterday, and must hope that he is close to delivering the goals that Villa have been sorely lacking.
"I think his performance against Spurs indicated he was getting back [to full match-fitness]," Lambert said. "He's still going to be match-fitness down because he didn't play for a number of months, but against Spurs I thought he was fantastic for us."
"When he's on his game I think he's one of the best in Europe, let alone in Britain. I've seen some brilliant strikers in my time and, when that guy's on his game, he's certainly up there. So that's a massive boost to us."
Villa certainly need Benteke back and at his best, but the direction of the club - still looking for a new owner after Randy Lerner decided to sell in May - means that they can no longer be confident of keeping their best players. Ron Vlaar, whose contract runs out at the end of the season, is a target for Manchester United next month and if United - desperate for a leader at centre-back - offer £12m it will be difficult for Villa to say no. Vlaar, of course, played for Louis van Gaal's Netherlands at the World Cup.
Fabian Delph, one of Villa's brightest sparks recently and now an England international, is also no closer to signing a new contract, with his current deal expiring in the summer.
Lambert admitted that all the power was in Delph's hands with the transfer window approaching.
"When people are going into the last year there is always that case," Lambert said. "You are never sure what can happen."