If you believe some of the headlines, Christian Benteke is the sole reason Aston Villa are still in with a fighting chance of Premier League survival.
The man rightly being hailed as one of the signings of the season has been phenomenal for Paul Lambert’s side. So much so that former Villa manager John Gregory believed that securing the striker’s services should secure Lambert’s job for the next two seasons.
But as important as the 22-year-old Belgian has been, another forward could make the difference both this weekend and in the final nerve-shredding weeks of the season.
Much has been said of the age of Villa’s squad. In a piece last month, I wrote of a side whose starting 11 against QPR contained only three players over 23.
In a relegation scrap, the fearlessness of youth can be a great weapon. But now, as Lambert’s side show real signs of staying up, something else is vitally important. The side needs experience.
In a squad so young, there is little of that. But they are lucky that one of their most experienced players is also in a rich vein of form.
At just 26, Gabriel Agbonlahor is one of Villa’s longest-serving players. And when you consider that both Brad Guzan and Ron Vlaar (both 28) are the only men older than him in the regular starting 11, Agbonlahor’s experience and ability are crucial in their final eight games.
Of those three men, only the striker has grown up at Villa Park. Only he has claret-and-blue blood. And only he is one goal away from setting a new club record of 61 Premier League strikes.
Starting today against Fulham, Agbonlahor has a key role to play in ensuring an impressive young side has the chance to continue its growth in the top flight.
As a product of Villa’s youth academy, the England forward is an example to those young players around him. Having been part of the first team since 2006, he must now do all he can to fight for them in what remains of this season.
It is something he has been doing in recent weeks, with three goals and an assist in Villa’s last four games.
Another goal and win today would see real hope that his side can remain in the top flight. So for all Benteke’s impressive exploits, don’t discount a man who is stepping up in his club’s hour of need.
He may not have always shown what he is capable of. But his experience and ability are now crucial; perhaps most importantly in games they are expected to win, of which there haven’t been many up to now.
They are the games when youth can get the better of you. It is up to the likes of Agbonlahor to ensure that doesn’t happen.
Can Agbonlahor maintain his scoring streak this afternoon? And how good can the attacking triumvarate of Agbonlahor, Benteke and Andreas Weimann ultimately be?
image: © Dagur Brynjólfsson