ASTON Villa’s miserable season suffered another damaging blow as a controversial penalty – converted by skipper Rickie Lambert – earned fellow strugglers Southampton victory at Villa Park and plunged Paul Lambert’s side into the drop zone.
Villa defender Enda Stevens appeared to make no contact on Saints player Jay Rodriguez before he went to ground just inside the box but stand-in referee Mark Halsey – a late replacement for the ill Chris Foy – thought otherwise.
Lambert made no mistake with his 34th minute spot-kick to move Nigel Adkins’ side above Villa and complete a double.
The harsh reality is Villa have now taken only one point from their last five league games and look set for a season-long battle to stay up.
It completed a miserable week after the Capital One Cup semi-final, first leg setback at Bradford, where the Bantams stunned the Birmingham side 3-1.
The defeat further emphasised the need for Paul Lambert to bring in reinforcements during January.
Chelsea moved up to third courtesy of a 4-0 win at Stoke, with the unfortunate Jonathan Walters scoring two own goals and missing a penalty.
Walters gifted Chelsea the lead in first-half injury time when he headed a right-wing cross beyond his own goalkeeper. The striker was also in the wrong place at the wrong time on 62 minutes to nod Juan Mata’s cross beyond Asmir Begovic under pressure from Frank Lampard.
Lampard himself scored the Blues’ third just three minutes later, hammering home a penalty after Mata had been brought down by Robert Huth, while Eden Hazard fired in a superb fourth with a left-foot drive from 25 yards.
Walters had the chance to make some kind of amends with a late penalty, but saw his spot-kick clip the bar on the way over as Stoke surrendered the top flight’s last unbeaten home record.
The three points lifted Rafael Benitez’s team above London rivals Tottenham after they could only draw 0-0 against QPR at Loftus Road.
That point in the day’s early kick-off lifted Harry Redknapp’s side off the bottom for a few hours, only for Reading to then come from 2-0 down to beat West Brom 3-2 at the Madejski Stadium.
Romelu Lukaku was left with the simple task of converting James Morrison’s cross in the 19th minute and had another goal disallowed before making it 2-0 on 69 minutes, but Jimmy Kebe pulled one back eight minutes from time, Adam Le Fondre equalised from the penalty spot in the closing stages and Pavel Pogrebnyak grabbed a dramatic winner in the last minute.
Wigan climbed out of the bottom three with a 1-1 draw at Fulham.
Giorgos Karagounis (22) gave the Latics the lead at Craven Cottage with a well-taken shot which went in off the post, but Franco Di Santo equalised on 71 minutes when he cut in from left and curled a shot into the far corner.
Sunderland moved further away from trouble with a 3-0 win at home to West Ham, with Sebastian Larsson opening the scoring after 12 minutes with a stunning left-foot half-volley from long-range.
Adam Johnson (47) doubled the lead after the Hammers defence failed to clear a loose ball and James McClean (74) sealed a convincing win at the Stadium of Light.
The games between Everton and Swansea and Norwich and Newcastle both finished goalless.