A springboard or a trapdoor? Aston Villa's next match could serve as one or the other. Paul Lambert knows that if his team overturn a 3-1 deficit when they host Bradford City in Tuesday's Capital One Cup semi-final second leg, then his young squad will enjoy a confidence infusion that could help them stay afloat in the Premier League. Suffering elimination at the hands of a struggling League Two team, on the other hand, would submerge Villa in further gloom.
There is no possibility of a glorious failure to reach Wembley now. Only a comprehensive victory will atone for their shambolic showing at Bradford while increasing belief that this side have the wherewithal to survive a relegation fight. "We have to get there," Lambert said. Simple as that.
This rambunctious derby with West Bromwich Albion was a useful preamble to the semi-final. It was played amid a frenetic atmosphere and, as is turned out, showcased a team's ability to come back from two goals down. Unfortunately for Lambert, it was West Brom who mounted the recovery as they reversed the 2-0 half-time score to salvage a point and stop their own run of defeats.
Lambert was aghast at the manner in which his team conceded the goals, especially the second one, which, after Chris Brunt had halved Villa's lead, was scored by Peter Odemwingie after they failed to cope with a corner. That has been a recurring theme for Villa since long before Lambert's arrival: they conceded more goals from set pieces (25) than anyone else in the Premier League last term and are on course to repeat that again this season, having let in more than everyone bar Wigan (both have conceded 15).
Bradford are aware of this weakness, with their manager, Phil Parkinson, announcing before the first leg that they would seek to exploit it: lo and behold, all three of their goals originated from corners by the midfielder Gary Jones. Lambert admits the persistence of the problem is driving him "potty" but says there is no easy solution: players simply have to try harder to prevail in the air.
"It's not rocket science," Lambert said. "We go man for man and if it's your man that scores, then we know who was to pick him up. It's you against your opponent, and you've got to go and put your head on it." Ron Vlaar, whose return to action against WBA after a two-month absence through injury added valuable experience to Villa's rearguard, said: "If you can't head it yourself you have to make sure your opponent doesn't either."
On the plus side for Villa, the first half gave a reminder of the attacking power that had been dormant since their superb victory at Anfield over a month ago. Christian Benteke was, in the words of the Albion goalkeeper Ben Foster, "a beast" and "unplayable", a point best made by the striker in the 12th minute when he outwitted Claudio Yacob before firing a ferocious 25-yard shot into Foster's net to give Villa the lead.
When Villa get in the groove, they are about much more than Benteke: they can pass and move with wonderful incision and cause bemusement as to why only Queens Park Rangers have scored fewer goals than them in the top flight this season. Encouragingly for the remainder of the campaign, Charles N'Zogbia emerged as an unlikely source of sorcery. The Frenchman has missed much of this campaign through injury but when he has played he has rarely been influential, which is why few Villa supporters were counting on the man they signed for £9.5m from Wigan in 2011 to spearhead the club's survival bid.
At The Hawthorns, however, he proved that he can be an important player in the run-in, excelling in a free role behind the front two. With penetrative dribbling and perceptive passing he set up Gabriel Agbonlahor's goal and created several chances for Villa to put themselves even more than two goals in front by half-time. "Charles and people like that create things where other people might not try, they've got the ability to make things happen," Lambert said. "You can take them making mistakes here and there because they're trying things somebody else won't try."
The manager's decision to withdraw N'Zogbia in the 67th minute with the score at 2-1 raised eyebrows but Lambert explained it was done out of concern for the player's fitness. It looks like he will need N'Zogbia for the fight ahead, starting against Bradford on Tuesday.
Man of the match Charles N'Zogbia (Aston Villa)