There are moments in matches when you know that despite your best efforts, determination and persistence that you just will not win. The boys in Claret and Blue worked tirelessly today, were box to box for 90 minutes and hit the woodwork 4 times. At full time, I am relieved to have taken a point – it is afterall a good point – but I am more impressed at the manner in which we earnt it.
Following on from positive performances against Chelsea and Sheffield United, Villa went into this derby game needing something. As I took my seat, ready to lose as much fingernail as it would take, I felt that we needed to consolidate. A win, whilst desirable going into the next couple of fixtures, would not define our season. Houllier has hoards of critics, indeed we have hardly been referring to him as the messiah, but recent performances are starting to demonstrate a little of the guile that I would expect to keep us in the division.
A strong start was required at St. Andrews. And Villa started brightly. Early pressure on the Birmingham goalkeeper Foster resulted in a hasty clearance straight to Agbonlahor who burst forward in on goal, cutting inside and wastefully planting the ball over from 10 yards out. In the first minute it was disappointing but on reflection this was a golden opportunity to put Blues on the backfoot.
Creativity, indeed chances in any form have been limited for Villa this season. It was heartening to see a more direct approach. This lead to Carew’s flicked header from Agbonlahors effort and Clark’s speculative shot/cross hit the woodwork. We have to keep trying; being speculative whilst remaining clever in how we choose to do this.
A strong first half performance was marred by the ineffective John Carew and repeatedly poor distribution from Collins. Downing, despite an early chance dragged wide was largely anonymous and Agbonlahor continues to be wasted out wide. Despite these seemingly bizarre tactical decisions, Villa were solid and managed to break with relative ease. The glaring problem is still an end product. For all of the hard work exerted in the first half, there was certainly a sense of the inevitability creeping into the game.
The players emerged un-changed for the second half and Villa soon found themselves defending a free-kick on the edge of their box. A scuffed shot from judas Gardner deflected its way to Roger Johnson who prodded the ball past a helpless Friedel. The goal was fortuitous and everything began to feel like the FA Cup all over again. Surely, surely, Birmingham would not be able to win this fixture having done nothing. Blues new boy Bentley, though wasteful with all that he did, was a handful. Friedel was also forced into a fine one handed save low to his right. Other than that, Villa weathered what came at them.
Reo-Coker looked assured in the centre until his substitution, Walker performed admirably going forward and Petrov was always open for a pass. Admirably Villa kept their heads, where previously outright panic has set in. Houllier made the brave decision of removing the hustling Reo-Coker for Bannan and rightly hauled off Carew for Delfouneso. Carew was a major disapointment for Aston Villa today, and one would have to suggest that offloading him at the first opportunity will be the most prudent course of action unless he demonstrates some form or improved attitude.
Regardless: This positive change brought on not only much needed fresh legs but also a change of approach. Bannan offers an assured pass. Delfouneso brings us youthful natural pace. We don’t see enough of Delfouneso and he soon risks falling into the Villa park academy abyss if he doesn’t demonstrate goals. Today he came on and did what we know he can do – he was direct and almost won the game with a stunning strike. Picking up the ball around 35 yards out, a burst of pace and a shimmy later he released a thumping shot that swerved wickedly before crashing onto the bar above Foster. A fine strike that would have been a worthy match-winner.
Villa’s much deserved equaliser came courtesy of hard work from down the right wing again from Kyle Walker. Walker who appears to like being in and around the final thirds of the pitch was again strong and cut the ball back for Albrighton to deliver an inviting ball into the box. Blues scrambled – and crucially Collins finished. It wasn’t pretty, but was nothing less than Villa’s play had warranted. Villa had opportunities to finish the match, Downing drove a powerful shot straight at Foster and Collins missed a chance at the far post when it appeared easier to score. The conclusion to the game was not without a token scare. A floated ball into the Villa penalty box was misjudged by Friedel who was beaten to it by Zigic who again proved his worth by missing with the goal gaping. Suffice to say that it would have been unfair on Villa.
A win would have been magnificent. Not only for local pride but with Manchester City and Manchester United looming it would have given just a little breathing space. But an away draw and the fashion in which it was earned was immensely positive. Villa’s overall play was better – indeed there appeared to be a plan – and whilst we were wasteful at times, we were direct and created clear-cut chances for ourselves. Today’s result drags us out of the bottom three, albeit on goal difference, but we’re out. And more importantly we are playing much much better. Perhaps an upset is in order?