x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Gerard Houllier is experiencing a case of deja vu at Aston Villa

As Gerard Houllier is finding out, the tide of opinion among the supporters can turn quickly at Aston Villa.

Aston Villa fans display a banner criticising Gerard Houllier at the weekend. Paul Childs / Action Images
Aston Villa fans display a banner criticising Gerard Houllier at the weekend. Paul Childs / Action Images

The Holte End has a tradition of eloquent dissent. The banner hung from the top tier at Villa Park on Saturday read "Had enough. Houllier out". It brought reminders of the 2006 message to David O'Leary "We're not fickle. We just don't like you".

O'Leary, now Al Ahli's manager, lasted only a few more months, departing that summer.

Gerard Houllier, Aston Villa's first French manager, must hope this is not a case of deja vu. Sources close to the boardroom have insisted it is not, but Houllier's position would be untenable if Aston Villa were to start next season in the Championship.

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Aston Villa fans have right to vent on Houllier even if the way be wrong

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Saturday's 1-0 loss to Wolverhampton Wanderers illustrates how quickly perceptions shift and how swiftly downwards momentum can be acquired.

Villa's previous home game, a 4-1 win over Blackburn Rovers, was their most emphatic triumph under Houllier. It suggested a corner had been turned, that a new-look team was sauntering into mid-table on a path paved with goals.

What followed prompted the discontent that meant some supporters were calling for regime change even before the weekend's Midlands derby defeat.

Houllier's decision to send a glorified reserve team to Manchester City in the FA Cup had echoes of Martin O'Neill taking an inexperienced side to face CSKA Moscow in the Uefa Cup two years ago; some felt the Northern Irishman's previously good relationship with the supporters never recovered.

Houllier's logic was that Premier League survival took precedence. Yet, with back-to-back defeats, Villa find themselves imperilled again, as though controversy served to drag them back down.

Of the eight teams separated by just three points at the foot of the table, they and West Ham United are the two that really should not be in danger.

The Hammers, with seven points from three games, have been revitalised by their January buys. Villa seemed to have been, too, until their recent relapse.

The assumption that Darren Bent's £18 million (Dh107m) signing had purchased safety along with a striker now appears an illusion.

The record buy's return is reasonable - three goals in eight games - but his brief spell at Villa Park has been pock-marked by misses.

Bent suits Villa's progressive 4-2-3-1 formation, notable for the speed with which the three support acts to the sole striker break, yet their flair players are showing signs of frustration as their predicament worsens. A petulant Ashley Young was fortunate to escape a red card against Wolves.

Villa's problems begin at the back, and not merely because the centre-backs Richard Dunne and James Collins made headlines with a drunken altercation that brought a fine of two weeks' wages apiece.

With both injured, Villa have been reduced to one specialist central defender for each of their last two games.

While he has been reluctant to use this argument, Houllier must wish he had also rested Dunne for the match at Eastlands, in which he sustained a shoulder problem. The Irishman is back in the fold after a mid-season spell in purgatory but the manager's confrontational nature has contributed to Villa's defensive shortages.

Stephen Warnock has not featured in 2011, exiled from the team in preparation for his exit from the club. Yet an England international left-back might have served a purpose on Saturday as Nathan Baker, his callow deputy, struggled against Adam Hammill before being replaced by Fabian Delph an out-of-position midfielder.

Houllier's plans for a summer overhaul have been telegraphed, with the benched captain Stiliyan Petrov another likely departure.

Yet to implement his plans, Houllier first has to halt the slide to prevent one of the most embarrassing relegations in Premier League history and then to regain the trust of the fans.

Neither will be easy, as O'Leary can testify. The warning signs in such situations are usually metaphorical. At Villa Park, they are visible, displayed among the hard core of their support.

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While Arsene Wenger ponders recalling Jens Lehmann in the most unexpected development in his long search for a dependable goalkeeper, he may consider the fates of two of his other "Invincibles".

Robert Pires was unable to make a difference when brought on by Villa on Saturday.

Meanwhile, Sol Campbell made his first start for three months, seemingly recalled by Alan Pardew, the Newcastle United manager, to counter Stoke City's height.

Sadly for the 36-year-old, he was culpable for the first two goals in Stoke's 4-0 win, the Potters' biggest in the Premier League.

With eight games to go, it may prove Campbell's final outing in black and white. If so, it was an undistinguished end to the top-flight career of one of the outstanding defenders of his generation.

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Liverpool's victory at Sunderland took Kenny Dalglish's return to 20 points from 10 league games, only five fewer than Roy Hodgson mustered in twice as many matches.

If Luis Suarez's superb second goal was one form of vindication for the club, which spent £23m on the Uruguayan, another came in the form of Jay Spearing's all-action display.

The 22-year-old lacks the class Liverpool will require in the long term, but his enthusiasm was apparent as he burst from box to box, winning the dubious penalty.

This is a revival based on the spirit the Liverpool youngster showed, as well as the astute deployment of limited resources.

 

sports@thenational.ae