Meetings between Aston Villa and Norwich City have radiated the same level of tension as the fiercest of local derbies in recent years, stemming from Paul Lambert's controversial switch from Carrow Road to Villa Park at the start of the 2012 season.
Dates in court over compensation fees for young goalkeeper Jed Steer’s move to Villa last year, along with Lambert’s ill-fated January pursuit of former midfield favourite Wes Hoolahan, have since added more bad blood to a growing rivalry, and the game looks set to be yet another hotly contested encounter that could see either side jump as high as 11th, dependant on other fixtures.
All controversies aside, both look set to slug it out for the remainder of the season in a relegation dogfight that appears to engulf the majority of the bottom half currently propping up the Premier League table, with all but seven points currently separating 10th placed West Ham and 18th placed Sunderland. Both Villa and Norwich are locked on 28 points apiece in 13th and 14th respectively, with the midlands side easily ahead by nine on goal difference.
When it comes to finding the back of the net, both sides have had a torrid time in the attacking half this season.
Villa’s 23-year-old star striker Christian Benteke sustained a hip flexor injury in the 1-0 victory at Carrow Road on September 21, starting a six-game stint on the sidelines. Upon the Belgian’s return, he endured a barren spell of 12 games without adding to the score sheet.
The Villans have been lacking fire power in depth this term, with Benteke’s replacement and eventual winning goal scorer in that game, 24-year-old Czech striker Libor Kozak, out for the remainder of the season with a broken leg sustained in a training ground tackle.
Chris Hughton’s men have had similar problems, with record signing Ricky van Wolfswinkel failing to justify his price tag, with a return of only a single goal in 17 league appearances.
But the Canaries would take great satisfaction by piling the misery on Paul Lambert’s side as they look to build on last week’s 1-0 victory over Tottenham, with a Robert Snodgrass finish resulting in only their second victory in 12 league games.
Coincidentally, Villa also have only claimed six points in their last 12 Premier League outings, the last being a thrilling four-three victory over fierce West Midlands rivals West
Bromwich Albion almost a month ago, a rare taste of victory at Villa Park which has hardly been a fortress in recent times, with only three victories this season; the least of all Premier League sides.
When Benteke, who has only seven league goals to his name this season, isn’t scoring goals, they seem to come up short when looking to others to finish off an attacking play. Tied for second is the injured Kozak with four, equal with the versatile Leandro Bacuna, whose net-finding exploits are primarily via a spectacularly-executed free kick.
Without a goal in their last three games, Lambert will be aiming for yet another victory over his former club, over whom he boasts a decent record with seven points in three league games along with knocking them out of last season’s League Cup. If played, Wigan-loanee Grant Holt could face his former club where he enjoyed his best years to date under his current boss.
Victories for both teams are coming very few and far in between, and both Lambert and Hughton will be quietly feeling the pressure behind their stern exteriors as the reality of relegation could slowly be realised in what looks to be a fight to the very end of the season.
Norwich have their work cut out for them on the home stretch to the final day, with their last four league games against all against teams pushing for honours - facing Liverpool, Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal respectively. With only 11 games until the season’s winners and losers are set in stone, both teams will see this weekend’s fixture as a must-win, as both look to edge closer to solidifying their status as a Premier League team.
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