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Reading v Villa: N'Zogbia relishing key role in survival run-in
Charles N'Zogbia on playing with freedom and responsibility.
7th Mar 2013
Reading v Villa: N'Zogbia relishing key role in survival run-in


By Brian Doogan

Matt Lowton identifies him as the most skilful player in the Villa team, Ashley Westwood as "a man who wants the ball, demands the ball and [so] you just give him the ball".

That a player once described by the late Sir Bobby Robson as "one of the most naturally gifted players of [his] age I'd ever seen" is proving more productively penetrating in the freer role allocated to him by manager Paul Lambert is not surprising.

More noteworthy is the manner in which the former enfant terrible has risen to the challenge of responsibility and seniority and how he now exerts such influence over players such as Lowton and Westwood and fellow French speakers Christian Benteke and Yacouba Sylla.

Charles N'Zogbia grew up in Caucriauville,a working-class quarter in Le Havre, the second largest portal city in France after Marseilles.

His life might have been scarred permanently by the juvenile delinquency that led many of his contemporaries to time in prison.

By his own admission, street football yielded frequently to street fights, with gang thugs and even the police becoming embroiled in the regular outbreaks of violence.

"Some of my best friends ended up in jail, the boys I grew up with, and the same might have happened to me," he candidly admits. "Football saved me."

While his peers succumbed to the urban deprivation via a dubious reliance on robbery and drug-dealing to find a way out, Charles's worried mother identified Le Havre's Academy as a beacon shining brightly towards a different life.

Her young boy's talent was exceptional and she encouraged him not only to dedicate himself to practise but to leave home and board with the lads who came to the Ligue 2 club from surrounding towns and villages.

He was enrolled in a private school by Le Havre, enjoyed the science subjects especially and might even have secured a place at university had he not excelled with a football at his feet, graduating from Le Havre to Sir Bobby's Newcastle United, Wigan and ultimately Villa.

That he understands the importance a guiding light can play in a young person's life may explain at least partly why he is stepping up to the plate and so strongly influencing those around him now.

"I think we all know we are a team, we help each other," he says.

"We all know what we have to do to help the spirit. It's not like one is on the side and does not feel wanted - everybody is together and that is what you need to play games. We are good together, we all speak to each other and it is good, the atmosphere and feeling.

"As a senior player, you have to help the younger players around you. They have a lot of energy and passion and commitment and sometimes you have to show them how to channel this. All of the more senior players are accepting this responsibility.

"Sometimes you do this by reminding them to just keep it simple. When I was young I used to listen to older players like Alan Shearer.

"You listened to them because they knew their football and you knew you would learn from what they had to say and also by their example.

"It is hard when you try to bring in a new team to do it from the start. If you do it straight away everyone is happy, but it takes time to build a team.

"Even when you see a team like Barcelona, they have been working together over many years. It is not easy when you bring in so many new players. It depends as well on the mentality of the players and it takes time to get to know each other.

"But we know each other well now at this stage of the season, we know we can rely on one another and we know that together we can win. This is important.

"We just have to stay focused on our jobs and the way to play football. We have played well now in every game since the second half against Newcastle. Everton away and West Ham at home were good results and I think what we did against Arsenal and Manchester City was good also.

"We were unlucky that Arsenal scored with about four minutes left and City scored almost on half-time but we played good games tactically and we created chances. In the end the results didn't go our way but we have strong belief from the way we played these games.

"Now we have an important game against Reading and we know we have to score and we have to keep the ball. We can do this. The best way always is to keep playing football, to stay focused on the style and on the way we play.

"It doesn't matter what the score is. We have to believe and keep doing the same things and we do believe in what we're doing as a team. This will take us a long way."

N'Zogbia and Benteke have forged a close alliance. Able to converse in French, they are relaxed in one another's company.

The 26-year-old has taken the younger man under his wing, helping him to integrate into the group initially and also to develop further the formidable arsenal which has made him the spearhead of the Villa attack.

"It definitely makes a difference to have a striker like him," N'Zogbia emphasises.

"For me, his finishing means we can score goals at any time. I think it is good to know we can score goals and we are always a threat. Goals change games. Goals help you win. Christian has had no problem.

"He is learning English football very fast and he is playing really well. His presence, his contribution has helped the team greatly."

Both players combined with clinical effect to inflict defeat upon West Ham, Benteke converting from the spot the penalty won by N'Zogbia's incisive running and impudent movement before the twice-capped Frenchman scored from a free kick which his manager described as "world-class".

That he has been granted license to roam somewhat more randomly of late appears to have benefitted his game but it is the collective effort and the requirement sometimes to be patient that is focussing N'Zogbia's mind ahead of the trip to Reading.

"I think that sometimes I have that permission but it is what we do together as a team, this is what counts," he insists.

"When we have the ball we want to go forward straight away but sometimes it doesn't happen like this and we have to make sure we don't force it.

"We have to see what we have and make sure we keep the ball and, when we see the space and the hole between the defenders and this is the best way to go, we have to do it. Sometimes we just have to wait, wait, wait and look for the defence to give us the opportunity to go and score.

"The way we play now we know how to score but we have to know how to win also. Sometimes we are scoring and not winning. But the key is to maintain the level of performance and this will give us a real chance. It is no problem to make mistakes.

"Everybody makes mistakes, we all do. What is important is to fight back and we are fighting and playing good football, this is vital. We have players who can play good football. This helps me also to play my game.

"During the season we have grown as a team and as long as we play good football this will be better for the team and for myself, too.

"The fans have been very good this season and this always helps. But it helps, too, that everybody wants to play. We are a team and we have to make sure we keep this good spirit. No matter what is going on, we just have to stick together.

"As a team, we are very together. We work as a team, we win as a team and we lose as a team. All we have to do is keep that same spirit and have everybody on that same level and it will be great for us. The good thing is this is how we are."

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