This fixture should be filed in the cabinet marked “scrappy affair” as the two teams fought a drab stalemate at Villa Park. If Villa could have managed to have found a higher gear, any question of relegation would have been removed. In any event, a further point is welcome.
Villa began the game with the physical presence of Heskey preferred to the pace of Agbonhalor. This appeared a wise choice from the off with the man mountains of the likes of Huth & Shawcross looking difficult to break down. Villa probed during the opening stages, but to little effect. This was to be (quite disappointingly) pretty much the outlook for the remainder of the match.
Stoke are a puzzling unit. A fine cup run has been offset against erratic league form. Their away form has been nothing short of dismal. As such they probably had their visit to Villa Park marked on the calender. After the first quarter of an hour had played out they forged corner after corner. Villa’s defensive frailties were laid bare as excellent crosses were delivered by the much abused former Bluenose Jermaine Pennent. Villa not so much defended them, as survived them. Friedel fisted away a driven effort and saved superbly after Jones’ close range header seemed destined to hit the back of the net.
The writing was on the wall after a seemingly endless barrage. Villa could muster little of an out ball, the defence hoofed, midfield went awol and the strikers hapless to hold up play faced with Stoke’s lanky centre halves over their shoulders. Our approach looked mightily flawed.
Rory Delap delivered a now textbook throw in and Jones rose to flick home the header to give Stoke the lead. The first time this has happened all season. Typically it occurred at Villa Park. Supporters frowned. Villa players pointed fingers. Gerrard’s heart probably raced. Not good at all.
Positively the Villa heads didn’t drop. Stoke seemed quite content with their work in the opening half hour and allowed Villa some possession. Kyle Walker, who had another indifferent afternoon once again, broke forward and delivered a measured ball onto the head of Darren Bent. The prolific striker made no mistake with a precision header that bounced in off the post. Bent continues to impress, and importantly score goals in a very unpredictable Villa team. It does not take a genius to work out where we would be without his efforts in the last couple of months.
As the half time whistle blew a pleasant optimism had set in – where only a few minutes prior a now ritual booing had seemed imminent. Whilst there are many who saw this game as the ideal opportunity to seal Premiership status – the fixture had a genuine end of season feel to it.
The second half was an incredibly frustrating game of football.
Frustrating due to a number of things. Firstly the officials inability to call any decision, regardless of to whom deserved it correctly. The FA continues to push respect campaigns, but the referee’s inability to uphold the rules of the game and just watch what’s happening continues to infuriate.
Next was Stoke. Who on earth would pay money to watch them play? They are the absolute model of mid 90’s Wimbledon. Dirty, malicious and an awful footballing team. One would even argue whether this was to any great effect, at least Wimbledon had some guile and invention about them. Stoke wasted time from the first minute to the last, whined, dived and showed absolutely no interest in chasing the game. They were drearily delighted with their point. Snore.
The final annoyance lies with a number of Villa players. Players who weren’t having an off day, but aspects of their play that underline not just our un-doing this year – but emphasise our inability to break through in previous seasons.
Nigel Reo-Coker was named man of the match. Combative, breaking up play, sidewards passing. He did a job. But can you recall him making anything of note happen? His effort cannot be questioned – but whether any of it came to any worth can. Stilyan Petrov was fine, composed and assured on the ball. But no more. It is frustrating that a player of such talent and vision managed to craft so little having had so much possession. And Ashley Young. For all the natural ability and promise, his petulance and arrogance do a great deal to undermine the end result. And James Collins and Richard Dunne – Carlos Cueller and Ciaran Clark must think they’ve done something criminally wrong. Scary defending, woeful distribution – I could go on.
Because the second half never got going – and that is entirely our fault. We have players with craft and invention, but they are carrying the remnants of a flawed aspiration. As the full time whistle blew, after occasional huffing and puffing, much sideways passing, some painful crossing and Darren Bent not having been delivered one single sniff of a chance – the opening of the summer transfer window really cannot come soon enough. There will likely be new faces in, but my word do we need to shift out some distinctly average characters.
At 41 points we are surely safe – and that is the ultimate objective. And I wouldn’t for one moment want to be judged as on a downer, as we have dug out some fine results of late that have done much to inspire. But we should take this season as an experience of how we should not just conduct ourselves on the pitch, but also our business off it.
In summation: Fair result, forgettable game, time to bring on the Baggies.