What a performance from Aston Villa last night. The bars and terraces pre-match were full of anticipation, there was an air of expectation almost, but few would have imagined that we would have beaten Manchester City. In the preview I wrote in the build up I concluded on the notion that quality strikers such as Darren Bent are the difference in turning stalemates into wins – and what a difference he was.
I will address Bent first because debuts don’t come much sweeter. For years we have had players who have arrived at the club with massive expectation and under huge pressure to perform in a certain manner. This pressure exists on Darren Bent, but purely in the form of goals. The fact is that he is pretty good at this. For years we have had creative players, and literally nobody who can do the obvious of being able to finish the chances as they crop up. Last night marks a big leap forward for Aston Villa.
Over ninety minutes Bent ran himself into the ground. At the seventy minute mark he made what was a rare move forward (as we were under seige) towards the Holte End, and the sweat on the man demonstrated the effort he had put in. My final observation on what I’ve so far seen also impresses me. Bent didn’t get needlessly involved in build up play. He was positioned on the last man virtually all night when we were under pressure, and whenever we broke forward he was never further than ten yards from the penalty spot. This terrified Manchester City and gave them something to think about all night.
The match itself was a fine demonstration of the gradual improvements that are coming to fruition under Houllier. This is afterall just one match, but our fitness level has improved notably since under the O’Neill era. We can are more resolute under pressure for longer as a result. Late goals were the bane of our play for the last two-three years, and arguably prevented us pushing on. Last night, for all Man City’s effort, they had limited clear cut opportunities. We matched them.
The centre halves Dunne and Collins has almost certainly their finest game of the season, harking back to the consistency they had shown last year. Dunne was a rock, strong and commanding, Collins put his all in. Carlos Cueller, who is always the man to get dropped was my personal Man of The Match. This man, who never dodges a challenge, never moans in the press when dropped or moved around and always puts in 100% was an absolute rock in the absence of Kyle Walker. Whilst Cueller’s distribution is at times unbelievably bad, he is always open for a pass and took much pressure off the team by advancing forward on numerous occasions. He put in a tireless and international standard display once again.
The midfield, though still in question, worked as a unit very efficiently. Petrov gives his all, his advancing years are limiting his legs but his intelligence on the ball is something that makes the whole team tick. Downing looked a little lost at times playing in an unfamiliar central role, but never gave up. His form of late has been erratic and a few poor passing choices evidence this. But he hussled and chased all night and was a credit to the determination the whole team showed. Ashley Young had one of his best games of late for Villa, a constant threat and almost put Bent in with a fine ball midway through the first half. Much more to come from this link up I should imagine. Marc Albrighton remains very much a prospect, but he runs and runs and delivers sumptuous final balls. Another fine performance from this rising star and I’m certain that composure will come in time.
Agbonlahor worked his socks off out wide again for Villa. This role isn’t where as fans we want to see him, but I’d rather have him on the field than benched. Against a team that allows for a genuine 4-4-2 expect to see him alongside Bent. And what about Bent’s goal? The ball was played forward to Ashley Young who released a bending low shot that Joe Hart did well to parry away. Having watched it back it appears a good save, Hart would have struggled to hold it and pushes it out about as best as could be expected. Cue the change I mention above. We had a clinical, natural striker lurking for just this kind of thing. It is unbearable to think of the amount of times the ball has bounced around the six yard box in recent years and we’ve had Marlon Harewood/Carew/Heskey nowhere near that positon. Not anymore. Bent, smelling the danger, was exactly where the ball would end up if saved and dispatched a firm and clinical shot under the scrambling Hart.
But what of the visitors? Manchester City were very impressive throughout. In the first half they displayed power, precision and delivered some absolutely astonishing set pieces. Their passing was also nothing short of a delight to watch and combined with their movement it was a relief to go in at half time with the lead. I was taken by the physical power of the City team on display, it reminded me of the all dominating Arsenal team from the turn of the century – indeed Viera was amongst the Man City squad.
The second half cannot really be assessed as much other than a seige. When Villa managed to retain the ball we were restricted by having ten men behind it. We were also guilty of some wasteful passing at times, especially when there were opportunities for a counter attack. Man City probed and pressed, and seemingly tried to force through a goal. But it never came. Tevez was a handful but was frustrated by close marking and was identied by referee Howard Webb as going to ground too easily on more than one occasion. Dzeko appears a big powerful forward who seems very much of the Drogba form, but he looked a little off the pace at times on his first Premiership outing. Villa were subjected to sustained pressure and defended admirably, and for all of Man City’s possession I recall very few clearcut opportunities. But then I did have my eyes closed.
There can be no doubt that the full time whistle provided much relief. Indeed you could feel the adrenaline draining from your blood as Howard Webb called time. Villa have hopefully turned a corner here and these three points, unexpected though they are, will breathe new life into this team. The victory takes us above our neighbours Birmingham City – who were ransacked 5-0 against Man Utd – and sets up Tuesday’s encounter with Wigan Athletic nicely. A win at the DW Stadium would mark a transformation in affairs since the abysmal home defeat against Sunderland. And Houllier must take much credit for that if it happens. Thereafter follows a trip to Old Trafford where we now visit with renewed optimism, and dare I say, expectation?