Paul Merson
Football Expert & Columnist

Christian Benteke: Paul Merson asks if Aston Villa should gamble on fitness

Benteke: crucial to Villa's hopes, says Merse

The result of Monday night's Midlands derby game pretty much depends on whether or not Christian Benteke is fully fit.

He started the season very well, but then he got injured in the game against Norwich and hasn't been at his best since then.

He's had a few chances - he missed a penalty against Everton the other week - but hasn't really been at it.

Aston Villa seemed to do okay when he was out of the team - they even beat Manchester City - but if you asked Paul Lambert he would want his top striker in the team all day long.

He had another fitness worry in training for Belgium last week and Villa really need him fit and firing.

If he's on form then I would fancy Villa to beat anybody away from home.

Their home form isn't the best, but when you've got Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andreas Weimann up front with Benteke then the combination of strength and pace is a match for anybody.

But if Benteke isn't fit then I can't see how they'll beat West Brom.

Risk

Libor Kozak would probably come into the side and he offers plenty in the air, but he's not a goalscorer like Benteke - and the other forwards are the same.

He's so important to their counter-attacking game.

"This is a big game in the Midlands and I think it will probably be a draw if Benteke plays."

Paul Merson

If Benteke is only half-fit then I don't see Lambert risking him in this game.

Next week they've got three games in nine days against Sunderland, Southampton and Fulham and it's so important that he's available to play in at least two of those games.

It will be a long winter if they lose all of those.

I'm not saying the West Brom game isn't winnable, but Lambert might decide to prioritise the home game with Sunderland and save him for that.

As for West Brom, a lot of people thought they might pick off from where they were last year and go marching towards the top of the table, but they had a difficult start and people were starting to think they were a one-season wonder.

You've got to give them credit for the way they've responded, though.

They went to Manchester United and won and should have won at Chelsea two weeks ago. They drew at home to Arsenal and got a tonking at Liverpool - but one defeat in those four games isn't a bad return at all.

This is a big game in the Midlands and I think it will probably be a draw if Benteke plays - but if he doesn't then I can see West Brom winning it 2-1.