x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 January 2018

Benched Darren Bent answers his Aston Villa manager's call

The 150th goal of the England striker's prolific career spared Aston Villa a derby defeat and enabled him to make his point to Paul Lambert, his manager.

Aston Villa 1 West Bromwich Albion 1

Aston Villa Bent 80’

West Brom Long 51’

Man of the match

James Morrison (West Brom)

Birmingham // The significance lay not so much in the statistic as in the message it sent.

The 150th goal of Darren Bent's prolific career spared Aston Villa a derby defeat and enabled him to make his point to Paul Lambert, his manager.

Because, for the first time since he signed from Sunderland, Bent was dropped for a league game.

Having already lost the captaincy this season, he also lost his place. Yet whatever reservations Lambert has about Bent as a player, his goals have been a constant over the past decade and the latest, a typically predatory strike, denied West Bromwich Albion the victory that would have propelled them into the top three.

"Darren is a massive part of this club and everyone knows he is a goalscorer," Lambert said. "I need everyone. I need competition for places."

That may not have been what Bent wanted to hear, but, as an £18 million (Dh106.8m) striker ought to, he represented a fine Plan B.

"It's obviously been a difficult couple of weeks, losing the captaincy and to find out I wasn't playing," the striker said.

His omission was a sign of the revolution underway at Villa Park.

This is their Year Zero as Lambert dismantles Alex McLeish's underachieving and unambitious side and introduces a more attacking style of play, younger footballers and his own signings.

Stephen Warnock and Alan Hutton had already been deemed surplus to requirements and Shay Given has been left out, but benching Bent was Lambert's boldest call of all.

But, trailing to Shane Long's goal, the Scot sent for the striker and he delivered.

Albion struggled to clear Charles N'Zogbia's corner and, after Ciaran Clark's shot was blocked, Bent guided his past Ben Foster.

He is the finisher and the finished article, providing a contrast with the man who led the line.

Christian Benteke may prove a rough diamond and has a blend of pace and power to suggest he is a budding Didier Drogba, but his efforts were undermined by erratic finishing.

Most obviously, when he dispossessed Gareth McAuley and cut infield, he blazed a shot wastefully over.

He could have scored again in the second half, when the substitute Gabriel Tamas epitomised Albion's resistance with a goal-saving challenge, but Villa are a side with renewed spirit.

Their comeback, following a fightback to knock Manchester City out of the Capital One Cup on Tuesday, made this a profitable few days for Lambert.

"I am thrilled with their effort," he said. "It was outstanding."

Before Bent's introduction, Villa's main threat came from midfield.

Foster tipped a dipping long-range shot from Brett Holman over and pushed a left-footed drive from the Australian away. "Two world-class saves," said Lambert.

Even Foster could not deny Bent, however, ensuring he upstaged another striker.

In the sixth minute, Long spurned a glorious chance, heading wastefully wide.

After half time, he had a goal disallowed before finally registering a legitimate, if slightly lucky, strike.

James Morrison sprung the Villa offside trap to accelerate clear on the right.

His low cross was aimed at Long, lurking at the far cross but, in his attempt to intercept, Ron Vlaar sent his attempted clearance into Long and it rebounded into the net.

Fortune almost favoured Albion twice: Long's replacement Romelu Lukaku had a late chance to win it, his shot deflecting off Clark, looping over Brad Guzan and clipping the post.

"The only disappointment was that Romelu didn't get the second goal when he came off the bench," the Albion manager Steve Clarke said. "It is a good result."

It is a fine start, too. Albion are the interlopers in a distinguished top seven.

They were the top team in the Midlands last season and, while honours ended even yesterday, they are the front-runners in the region again.

Villa, meanwhile, have made officially their worst start to a Premier League campaign but there is a sense that, after a traumatic year, a corner is being turned.