Good evening! Thank you very much for joining Sports Mole
for tonight's midweek Premier League fixture as Aston Villa
host Crystal Palace
. The mood between the two sides at the moment could not be much different, with Villa in dire straights and Palace flying high and dreaming of Europe. Before we get into all that, though, let's have a look at the two teams on show...
ASTON VILLA STARTING XI: Bunn; Bacuna, Okore, Lescott, Cissokho; Gueye, Westwood, Veretout, Gil, Ayew; Kozak
ASTON VILLA SUBS: Guzan, Richard, Clark, Sinclair, Richardson, Lyden, Gestede
CRYSTAL PALACE STARTING XI: Hennessey; Ward, Dann, Delaney, Souare; Cabaye; Ledley, McArthur; Zaha; Puncheon, Sako
CRYSTAL PALACE SUBS: Speroni, Kelly, Jedinak, Mutch, Chamakh, Campbell, Wickham
What can we make of those two teams, then? Well, the hosts have made four changes to the side that were held by Wycombe Wanderers at the weekend, including the interesting decision to keep Brad Guzan on the bench and continue with Bunn in between the sticks. There are two more changes in front of the keeper as Lescott and Cissokho return to the starting XI, while Bacuna drops back into a deeper role as Richards is only deemed fit enough for the bench.
At the other end of the field there is another surprise inclusion as Kozak leads the line for Villa despite being linked with a move away from the club this month. It is a rare start for the striker, which means a rare opportunity to impress, and if he can inspire Villa to end their dreadful run of form then it could well breathe life into his career at the club. Behind him, Ayew also returns to the side and should help to shoulder any goalscoring burden.
Palace, meanwhile, keep changes to a minimum from their FA Cup outing, making only the two. That does include the welcome return of Bakary Sako, though, and the summer signing is expected to lead the line today as he did often before his injury. Wickham is only deemed fit enough for the bench and, with Gayle and Bolasie also still sidelined, Sako will have to provide the attacking threat along with Zaha and Puncheon tonight.
Palace's top scorer this season is actually Cabaye, so having the midfielder fit for today's game is a big plus for the Eagles. He returned from suspension against Southampton in the FA Cup at the weekend and picked up a knock, but he has recovered adequately to start this evening. McArthur is the only other change to the side that beat the Saints, with Pardew keeping faith with his back four and the rest of his midfield.
Palace's form this season has certainly been noteworthy, and we will talk about them in greater depth later, but most eyes today will be on Aston Villa. Their form this season has been truly dreadful and, while Remi Garde
is publicly still insisting that his side are up for the fight, I'm sure that there are even some inside the club who feel that relegation is an inevitability now. The gap to safety is 11 points, and that is a huge ask for a side who has not won since the opening day of the season.
That means that they have gone 19 league games without victory - a club record that continues to extend with every passing week at the moment. They have amassed just five points from 57 available since that win over Bournemouth in their opening match of the campaign, so it is no surprise that they find themselves staring down the barrel of relegation from the Premier League for the first time ever. Only three teams in Premier League history have ever gone longer without a win.
Supporters may have thought that things couldn't get much worse when they were beaten 3-1 by Sunderland in a must-win basement battle in their last league outing, but Villa slumped to a new low when they were held by League Two side Wycombe Wanderers in the FA Cup on Saturday. The reaction of the fans after that match showed that they have lost patience with the team, and anything other than a victory tonight is unlikely to lift the toxic mood around the club.
In reality, though, a win is very unlikely this evening. Villa have the worst away record in the Premier League this season, failing to win a single game in front of their own fans and picking up a meagre three points - seven fewer than the next worst home record. Stretching back to last season their winless league run at home is now 10 games, and they have failed to even score in six of those. This season alone they have only found the back of the net six times at Villa Park - the lowest tally in the league.
Remi Garde has insisted that he does not regret taking on the job, but it looks to be an almost impossible task for him now. He is still yet to record his first win in charge of the club, and his record of four points from his opening nine league games represents very little progress from Tim Sherwood's reign. Sherwood amassed the same amount of points from his final 10 games in charge, so Garde would need something from this game today to better his predecessor.
Even without Villa's form, particularly at home, Palace would be full of confidence coming into this match. They have been superb away from home ever since Alan Pardew
took over at the club, winning 14 of their 21 matches on the road under him in all competitions. Their current unbeaten away streak is now five games, while only Leicester have average more points per game on the road than the Eagles this season. Add to that the fact that they have the best defensive away record in the league and you can see why the visitors are favourites for this one.
After 20 games of last season, Palace found themselves down in the relegation zone, scrapping alongside the likes of Villa for Premier League survival. However, Pardew deserves huge credit for the work he has done since, with Palace now 14 points better off and looking to launch an unlikely European challenge this season. Should results go their way tonight then they could end the evening in fifth place.
The Eagles may even be just a prolific centre-forward away from being genuine contenders for a Champions League berth this season. We all know how dangerous their flying wingers can be, but Palace have been without a true focal point all season to snap those chances up. Only one of their 23 league goals this season have come from a recognised striker, and that was from the penalty spot too.
It is perhaps not too surprising that they have hit a bit of a slump in front of goal recently, then. They have failed to score in their last three league matches, and another blank this evening would make it four in a row in the top flight for the first time since February 1998. That three-match winless streak would have brought the Eagles back down to earth a little as they drew with relegation candidates Bournemouth and Swansea before being well beaten by Chelsea at Selhurst Park in their most recent league outing.
However, they did return to winning ways, and indeed scoring ways, in the FA Cup on Saturday as goals from Ward and Zaha saw them past Southampton and into the fourth round. It was a perfect way to bounce back from Pardew's heaviest league defeat as Palace boss and, with it being another victory away from home, will add that extra bit of confidence heading into this evening's contest.
PREDICTION: We're 10 minutes from kickoff at Villa Park, which means that it is time for a prediction! I really can't see anything other than an away win here. Everything, from home/away form to attack/defence statistics points to Palace coming away with all three points today and piling more misery on the hosts. I'm going for a 2-0 win for the Eagles.
Palace have won four of the last six league meeting between these two sides, while Villa have not beaten the Eagles here since March 1998, when Savo Milosevic got a brace in a 3-1 victory for the Villans. The reverse fixture earlier this season ended in a 2-1 win for Palace, although it was not completely straightforward as they needed a late winner form Bakary Sako after Pape Souare's own goal had cancelled out Scott Dann's opener.
The corresponding fixture last term ended goalless on New Year's Day, however, and that was Palace's final game before Pardew took over. It is fair to say that the former Newcastle boss has done a magnificent job since then, and he will be keeping an eye on the scores from the other two games taking place tonight as dropped points from West Ham and Manchester United would open the door for his side to move fifth.
For Villa, their first priority tonight will be to avoid conceding the opening goal. They have done so 15 times already this term - more than any other side in the league - and more often than not they have been unable to recover from that.
Only two sides in Premier League history have ever had fewer points after 20 games of a season than Villa do at the moment, with Sunderland posting six points during 2005-06 and Derby seven two years later on their way to posting the lowest points tally in the division's history. That is the company that Villa are keeping at the moment.
KICKOFF: Here we go then! Crystal Palace get us underway at Villa Park as they look to pour more misery on Villa's season.
OFF THE POST! Oh my word, Palace are almost ahead inside the opening minute! Zaha plays a one-two with Puncheon to get into the box far too easily before cutting inside and looking for the bottom corner. However, his shot hits the foot of the post and Villa get away with one early here.
At the other end Kozak finds himself in a bit of space going forward, but his shot is blocked and goes behind for a corner.
CLOSE! The resulting delivery comes all the way out to Westwood following a poor clearance from Sako, and the Villa man hits a decent strike narrowly past the post, although Hennessey looked to have had it covered.
Well - that was a bright start to the match! Villa so nearly went behind after less than a minute, and I dread to think what the reaction would have been had that happened. However, they have responded fairly well since.
Villa have actually been on top since Zaha hit the post. They have seen plenty of the ball and had it in some good areas, while Palace have been unable to make it stick up front so far.
UPDATE: Some bad news for Palace and their ambitions to go fifth this evening - Manchester United have taken the lead against Newcastle courtesy of a Wayne Rooney penalty.
Poor from Delaney as he completely mistimes his tackle, which almost allows Villa in behind, but there is cover for the Palace defender and the danger is swept up.
SAVE! Hennessey is called into action for the first time tonight as Veretout goes for goal from range, but he doesn't catch it very well and it is straight at the keeper, who makes a simple stop.
Villa don't look like a side winless in 19 and 11 points from safety at the moment. They are stroking the ball around pretty well and playing with a bit of confidence, although they aren't going anywhere too fast it must be said.
A promising position breaks down for Villa as Bacuna comes forward with the ball, cutting across the edge of the area and looking for a teammate. His pass is intercepted, though, and Palace immediately look to break, only for their own attack to also break down.
SHOT! Sako got the winner on his debut against Villa in August and he looks to get another here. He lets fly from range on this occasions, hammering a thunderbolt of a shot towards goal from 25 yards out, but it is always rising and ends up a yard or so above the crossbar.
Palace are beginning to grow into this game more and more, and there is a lurking threat about the Eagles now. They still look most dangerous on the break, as ever, but they are seeing more of the ball inside the Villa half too.
Good play from Ayew as attacks down the right channel, throwing in a few step-overs before cutting a low ball back into the box that is intercepted. Villa need to get more players in the area for those sorts of chances.
Brave defending from Delaney as he sticks his head on a ball that Kozak was going for with an acrobatic volley attempt. Delaney wins the header, but gets a boot square in the face for his troubles.
CLOSE! A long ball forward is flicked on by Kozak to Ayew, who is faced with a tight angle and three white shirts around him. He only really has one option and that is to go for goal, which he duly does. His connection with the half-volley is a good one, but it was always a big ask from that angle and the ball slams into the side-netting.
CLOSE! Palace come even closer at the other end here as Cabaye swings a free kick into the box and Delaney manages to connect with it. It is an unorthodox effort as he just tries to steer it towards goal with his leg, and it almost comes off, but the ball drops inches past the post.
Minor concern for Gil here as he is shrugged off the ball by Ward before falling heavily to the ground and seemingly smashing his face on the turf. He should be fine to continue.
Sure enough, after as squirt of a water bottle, Gil trots back onto the field. Neither side has really been able to grab control of this match so far.
Villa have had almost 60% possession in the opening half an hour or so of this match and, while they are playing relatively well, they still haven't really tested Hennessey. Palace have come the closest of the two sides through Zaha and Delaney.
It is all rather flat at the moment. Palace have not been able to conjure up many of them fluid counter-attacks that can make them such an exciting team to watch, while Villa aren't really going anywhere with the ball when they have it.
Ayew picks up the ball 25 yards from goal and twists and turns his way into shooting space before finally letting fly. His effort is blocked, however, and deflects past the post for a corner.
The first corner leads to a second, and that delivery almost results in a goalkeeping error. Hennessey comes out to claim but then drops the ball, only to gather it at the second attempt before any Villa players could take advantage.
Ayew is looking very bright for Villa at the moment, but that is not really being matched by the players around him. Too often Villa have been lacking enough bodies in the box for Ayew to pick out, while Kozak is clearly lacking a bit of sharpness on his first start for more than two years.
Again Villa come forward as Villa hound Palace down and win the ball back in a good area. Gueye picks it up and takes it to within shooting range, but his effort is blocked.
There will be one minute of added time at the end of this first half.
HALF TIME: Aston Villa 0-0 Crystal Palace
The first half comes to an end at Villa Park, then, and we remain goalless between Aston Villa and Crystal Palace. It has been a pretty even contest so far, with Villa controlling the lion's share of possession but Palace creating the better chances. It is all still to play for in the coming 45 minutes!
The closest we have come to a goal arrived in the very first minute when Palace almost got off to the perfect start. Zaha exchanged a one-two with Puncheon to move into the box before curling an effort towards the bottom corner with the angle against him. He beat the keeper, but not the woodwork as his effort came off the foot of the post.
Palace came close again shortly before the half-hour mark, this time through a set piece. Cabaye floated a free kick into the middle from deep and Delaney got away from his man before steering it goalwards. Bunn was left rooted to the spot and could only watch as the ball drifted inches past the post.
Aside from that, there hasn't really been much goalmouth action in truth. Bakary Sako thundered a long-range effort over the crossbar, while at the other end Westwood fired one strike narrowly wide from the edge of the box and Veretout brought a simple save from the keeper. Neither goalkeeper has been truly troubled as yet, though, and hopefully we will see an increase in clear chances during the upcoming 45 minutes.
KICKOFF: Aston Villa get us back underway for this second half, and the first thing to tell you is that Palace have made a change at the break, bringing Connor Wickham on for Ledley.
Ayew was Villa's best player in the first half and he looks to start the second in similar fashion by taking the ball down and trying to beat a defender to the byline, but he just can't keep it in and Palace have a goal kick.
Westwood looks to feed a ball into Kozak, who has escaped the attentions of his markers inside the box, but he just timed his run wrong and strayed offside as the ball was being played. If I'm being honest, Kozak doesn't look like the man who is going to fire Villa to safety!
SAVE! I knew that was going to happen... Kozak very nearly sneaks in an opener for Villa, but Hennessey gets down to make an important stop. Ayew found the striker, who managed to get a shot away which deflected towards the bottom corner. It looks like sneaking in, but Hennessey turns it behind for a corner.
Palace have barely been able to get into this game at all since the restart. Villa are doing fairly well here, it must be said, but they need to come up with something special if they are to survive this season.
Chance for Palace to put the ball into the box as Bacuna blocks the run of Cabaye around 35 yards from goal and slightly over to the left. Cabaye's delivery is neither a shot nor a cross, however, and Bunn collects it.
Palace want a few free kicks in quick succession, but Clattenburg lets both go. Give the referee credit - he is trying to let this game flow, and Aston Villa's momentum is growing as a result.
GOAL! Aston Villa 1-0 Crystal Palace (Joleon Lescott)
How big could this goal prove to be?! Aston Villa take the lead through Lescott, although the defender owes a great deal of gratitude to Hennessey. It is an absolute shocker from the keeper, who palmed Lescott's tame header down to the ground before failing to prevent it from trickling between his own legs and over the line. Terrible, terrible mistake from the visiting keeper, but Villa won't care one bit!
So often luck goes against sides at the bottom, but Villa have got a big slice of fortune there. The fans respond by cracking up the volume and suddenly the gloom seems to have lifted a little around Villa Park. There is still a long way to go, though, and the hosts are sure to get nervous if it remains 1-0 as time goes on.
CRYSTAL PALACE SUB: Pardew makes another change for the visitors as Marouane Chamakh comes on in place of Sako.
The fans are really getting behind the hosts now. This has been a much improved performance and, while the quality has been lacking for the most part, the effort and desire has certainly been there.
Palace really having looked like scoring from open play since the very first minute of this match, when Zaha hit the post. Delaney has also come close when he got on the end of a free kick, but aside from that Bunn has had very little to do.
YELLOW CARD! Veretout goes into the book for a foul on Zaha right on the edge of the area. It is the first card of the game, but there could be worse in store for Villa...
Cabaye lines it up, but the wall does its job and prevents the Frenchman's effort from testing the keeper, much to the delight of the majority inside Villa Park.
SHOT! Wickham looks to come up with something special to get his side back into this match, but his long-range effort flies well over the top.
There doesn't seem to be much urgency about Palace at the moment, despite having less than 20 minutes to rescue something from this game now. This would be a big shock considering Palace's away form and Villa's home form coming into this match, and it would certainly be unexpected points dropped for the visitors.
In truth, though, Palace don't deserve too much from this match. They may feel that a draw is the fairest result based on the opening 75 minutes to the game, but they certainly haven't done enough to get the win that many expected they would here.
Villa fans think that they are on the verge of sealing the win here as Kozak is slipped in behind the defence and only has the keeper to beat. However, the linesman's flag is up, and Kozak put his effort wide anyway.
CRYSTAL PALACE SUB: A third and final change for Palace as Mile Jedinak comes on to replace McArthur.
YELLOW CARD! Ward goes into the book for a sliding challenge on Ayew right on the touchline that sends the Villa man skidding into the advertising hoardings.
YELLOW CARD! That is quickly followed by a card for Gueye, who slid in from behind to bring Chamakh down on the halfway line.
Crucial piece of defending from Okore as he steps in to prevent a chance for Palace. This could be a nervy final 10 minutes for the home side!
This is all about game management for Villa now. They have controlled this contest for long spells, and they just need to do it for six more minutes and that'll be enough for a first win since the opening day of the season.
CHANCE! Brilliant from Ayew, who has been a bright spark all night. He comes forward down the left and show great footwork to wriggle between two defenders into the box. He does everything so well until the finish, which he blazes over the crossbar.
The Villa fans are singing - they are happier right now than they have been in a long time. A first win since the opening day is within touching distance, and suddenly things are looking a lot brighter for the home side now.
ASTON VILLA SUB: A change from Remi Garde to wind down the clock here as Gil is replaced by Ciaran Clark.
There will be three minutes of stoppage time at the end of this match. Can Villa hold out?
CHANCE! Late chance for Palace as a ball comes all the way through to Dann at the back post, but it just skids away from him and he can't take it in his stride as the chance goes begging!
FULL TIME: Aston Villa 1-0 Crystal Palace
They've done it! Villa hold out for their first Premier League win since the opening day of the season, some five months ago! It wasn't pretty at times, and they got a stroke of luck with the goal as Wayne Hennessey
allowed Lescott's header to squirm from his grasp, but Villa will not care one bit. They get the three points, and perhaps with it an injection of hope that they are not yet doomed to relegation this season.
That is all we have time for this evening! Thank you very much for joining Sports Mole
on what could prove to be a turning point in Aston Villa's season as they win for the first time in 20 league games. I will leave you with our match report
, and be sure to stick around for reaction from both camps. From me, though, it is goodbye for now!