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Exiled Bent facing Villa Park trap door

Paul Lambert will give Darren Bent another clear indication his future lies away from Aston Villa if he excludes him from the squad to face Reading tonight. Lambert is preparing for a crucial week and weighing up whether to take a major gamble by leaving Bent out for the second match in succession, with Villa in the relegation zone.

Villa's record £24m signing did not even make the bench for the goalless draw with Arsenal on Saturday when Lambert opted for Jordan Bowery, a £600,000 signing from Chesterfield, ahead of him. Villa have scored only 10 goals in the league this season but Bent has not started a game since the 1-0 defeat at Fulham on October 20.

Fulham and QPR are both interested in the England international, but it promises to be a difficult two months for Bent until the transfer window opens in the new year.

Lambert is facing two potentially season-defining games this week, with the visit of Reading followed by a trip to QPR on Saturday in what will be Harry Redknapp's first match at Loftus Road. Reading and QPR are the only teams below Villa in the table and trips to Liverpool and Chelsea next month suggest this could be a pivotal stage of the campaign for Lambert.

Despite his insistence that "we'll be fine", the statistics do not back him up. Villa have the second worst record in the Premier League this year and have won only two home games in 12 months – undeniably relegation form.

It is also pertinent to point out that Lambert's predecessor, Alex McLeish, eventually hounded out in May after a difficult 11 months, had six more points at this stage of the season last year.

While Lambert's treatment of Bent is a risk, his decision to exile other experienced players including Shay Given, Alan Hutton and Stephen Warnock and focus on recruiting youngsters has also been scrutinised.

Villa will move up to 16th if they beat Reading and midfielder Barry Bannan is determined to help the club avoid a third successive battle against relegation. He said: "It hurts when people say we're going to struggle but it's up to us to prove them wrong and that's what we will do." (© Daily Telegraph, London)

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Irish Independent