Aston Villa 1 Reading 0
Darren Bent suffered another humiliating snub but just when Aston Villa's players threatened to further ridicule his continued omission, Christian Benteke spared his manager from a more severe inquest.
Bent was the centre-page spread in Villa's matchday programme but is surely preparing for a new chapter in his career after being excluded from Paul Lambert's 18-man squad for the second successive game. He watched the match from his executive box and for 80 minutes it appeared his reputation would only be enhanced until Benteke vindicated Lambert with what could prove to be a crucial goal.
Benteke has effectively taken the place of Villa's England international since his pounds 7?million arrival from Genk in the summer and his fifth goal of the season enabled Villa to climb out of the relegation zone. But the Bent debate refuses to go away and despite this victory, Lambert is running out of reasons to exclude the pounds 24?million record signing. There was another picture of Bent in the programme with the caption 'every goal matters', and this was only Villa's 11th Premier League goal of the season. Lambert will hope it kicks what has so far been a difficult season into life.
Lambert was back in the dugout after serving a one-match touchline ban but it was Bent who suffered the ignominy of being sat in the stands this time.
The Villa manager usually names his team two hours before kick-off and once again opted for Jordan Bowery, a pounds 500,000 signing from Chesterfield, ahead of a player who has scored 102 Premier League goals.
Bent was alleged to have stormed out after discovering his latest exclusion but returned from his car to watch the game from his box in the Trinity Road Stand. Whatever the reasons for Bent's latest snub, it is difficult to envisage any other scenario but his inevitable exit in the January transfer window.
Lambert's high-risk strategy only increased the pressure to win the game, especially when you consider Villa's next match will see them attempt to ruin Harry Redknapp's Loftus Road coronation.
After only two home wins in 12 months, the tension was palpable. Reading managed 13 away victories last season as they cantered to the Championship title and have struggled to transfer those results to the higher level, but should have taken the lead in the 10th minute.
Jobi McAnuff's low cross created havoc with Brad Guzan saving from Hal Robson-Kanu before Adam Le Fondre fluffed an overhead kick after Villa's defence failed to clear.
But Villa recovered from a hesitant start, only to produce the sort of wayward finishing that underlined why Bent's exile could be so damaging.
Benteke, the forward who has effectively taken Bent's place, shot straight at Adam Federici from 10 yards before Andreas Weimann scooped his shot horribly over from even closer range.
With eight players aged 23 or under, Lambert's emphasis is on the future and while his team cannot be accused of lacking endeavour and spirit there was again a distinct lack of cutting edge. Ten Premier League goals before this game tells its own story.
Reading were tidy without ever threatening but Le Fondre, wasted another golden opportunity in the 59th minute. Nicky Shorey, the former Villa defender, bent in a corner from the right and Le Fondre headed over from four yards. Jason Roberts then broke clear but his low shot was kept out by Guzan's legs.
The visitors appeared untroubled and on course for a point but Benteke spared them a hostile reception at the final whistle when he nodded in Ashley Westwood's corner. Lambert jumped in the air to celebrate, vindicated but undoubtedly relieved.
For McDermott, it was another hard luck story. His team have conceded more goals in the final 30 minutes than any other team in the league and it is an affliction that needs to be eradicated soon or they face a one-way ticket back to the second tier.
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Guzan; Lowton, Baker, Clark, Stevens (Lichaj 24); Bannan Westwood; Weimann (Ireland 68), Holman (Albrighton 67), Agbonlahor; Benteke. Subs: Given, El Ahmadi, Delph, Bowery. Booking: Clark.
Reading (4-4-2): Federici; Cummings, Morrison, Mariappa, Shorey; McAnuff, Leigertwood, Tabb, Robson-Kanu (McCleary 83); Roberts (Hunt 79), Le Fondre. Subs: Taylor, Harte, Pearce, Gunnarsson, Pogrebnyak.
Referee: L Probert (Wiltshire).
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