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Aston Villa in search of vital points against Crystal Palace as discontent grows

With three straight ugly losses and the form of bottom-three teams unnervingly relevant once again, Aston Villa face Crystal Palace in a crucial test for Paul Lambert's future.

Clive Mason

The past three weeks have, if nothing else, served as a reminder that Aston Villa are impossible to figure out. A strong start to the year gave way to slide into mediocrity, but it seemed as though a corner had been turned thanks to a run of solid form beginning late in the winter and continuing into the early spring. But after three consecutive shockingly bad performances, we're now back to where we were this time last season; some are openly calling for Paul Lambert's head, claiming that the club haven't made any progress since his appointment. Others want to see things taken a step further and have called for the board to resign and/or for Randy Lerner to sell the club, seemingly of the belief that things aren't going to get any better until something drastic changes at the top.

Whether or not you agree that nothing will improve until Lambert and/or Paul Faulkner and/or Randy Lerner are gone, their detractors certainly have a point. Aston Villa's league standing hasn't improved more than incrementally, and though certain aspects of the team have gotten better this year over last, the watchability of the football has regressed and it's difficult to see how the team is going to take any major steps forward next season without drastic changes to their approach. It's also become increasingly apparent that the financial toll taken by the push for Champions League football early on in Lerner's ownership was more severe than it seemed, and though some of the blame for that should certainly be apportioned to Martin O'Neill, one has to question Lerner's willingness to go so far in one direction if it couldn't be more gradually reigned in should things not go according to plan.

The point is, people are angry and worried about Villa's future, and their reasons are perfectly understandable. Aston Villa aren't going to be a top-4 side without some manner of seismic shift-which Financial Fair Play regulations may well have made impossible-but given the size of the club and its fanbase, there's absolutely no reason they should be in relegation battles three years in a row. There's plenty of blame to go around-and several of the people deserving said blame aren't with the club anymore-but it's taken some pretty egregious missteps for things to get to where they are today.

Aston Villa should be going in to a mid-April game with Crystal Palace in desperate need of a result to keep their heads above water. And yet, here we are. An in-depth look at how things ended up this way is a topic for another day, but what's more important is making sure that the somehow still-present fears of relegation are dispatched as quickly as possible. The problem, of course, is that it's currently quite difficult to feel confident that such a thing is going to happen. The incompetence on display these past three games has been so staggering that it's not difficult to convince oneself that this team isn't going to win another game.

The fact that Crystal Palace have actually been playing pretty well of late doesn't exactly help matters. Tony Pulis took over for Ian Holloway in November, and though it's taken awhile it appears as though his appointment has begun to pay off. Palace have won two in a row-one of those coming over Chelsea-and have 14 points from their last 10 games, a pace that would put them safely in the top half if maintained over a full season. This isn't an especially talented team, but it's a team that looks to have bought into Pulis' philosophy and have begun to see the results. And though it probably goes without saying, the things Palace do well are the things that give Villa fits.

Every time Aston Villa have given their fans a reason to hope these past few years, they've found away to crush it before it could really take hold. For the third straight year, we're well into the spring and looking forward to a crucial game against a bottom-half side in order to stay out of the relegation battle. It's a game that's significant in terms of what's at stake but almost impossible to be excited about in terms of what's going to happen on the field.

It's Crystal Palace vs. Aston Villa. Catch the fever.