Date: 9th August 2009 at 1:33pm
Written by:

Sorry about the headline, I think Mr Fear (pardon the pun) is having an affect on my marbles…

A nice sunny day and Italian Champions League side visiting Villa Park; two years ago it was Inter Milan and we won 3-0 in front of a packed crowd. This year it was Fiorentina and again we won, but the stadium was certainly not full. It was around half the capacity – maybe the recession is taking its toll, plus it was a bit earlier in August this time round – but still a decent turn-out of 22,915.

This was the team:
Friedel; Lichaj, Cuellar, Clark, Shorey; Milner, Delph, Gardner, A Young (c); Agbonlahor, Heskey.
Subs: Sidwell, Carew, Davies, Reo-Coker, Delfouneso, Guzan, Albrighton, Lowry.

Within seconds our debutant Delph put in the type of challenge that showed why he picked up 13 bookings last season, but luckily he missed and got away with it! After that he was very impressive in both his attacking and defensive play, in addition to covering a lot of ground, and we controlled the game in the early part.

Agbonlahor looked refreshed and was causing problems for their defenders, Young and Milner were threatening, Delph and Gardner were probing, Heskey grabbed himself a goal and was using his physical attributes well.

The early stages saw us playing some nice football with long-range passes hitting their mark. James Milner had an early effort and Craig Gardner went close twice in the early stages. Around the quarter of an hour mark Milner threaded the ball through to Ashley Young whose cut-back was smashed home from close-range by Emile Heskey.

Easy, this beating Italian teams malarkey! The next fifteen minutes or so was more of the same; us controlling the play, defenders having it fairly easy, generally expecting a second goal to come.

Around the half-hour mark the Italians changed their approach. They pushed on to us a bit more, defended with a slightly higher line and this lead to them having more joy as an attacking unit. In particular, Friedel was called upon to make one very good save that was cleared up with a great tackle by Cuellar.

Of course, the one problem Fiorentina faced by doing this was it meant we could potentially pick them off on the counter, and a good run by Ashley Young almost lead to a second goal a few minutes before half-time.

Half-time substitutions were Brad Guzan, Curtis Davies and Marc Albrighton on for Friedel, Cuellar and Young. The shape remained, with Milner moving over to the left to allow Albrighton to play on the right. Davies took the armband.

Fiorentina continued with the same tactics that they finished the first half with and kept our defenders busy without anything too dangerous happening. At the other end, Marc Albrighton carried on his sparkling form from the Peace Cup and put in some excellent crosses.

On the hour mark, John Carew, Nathan Delfouneso, Steve Sidwell and Nigel Reo-Coker came on. The former two replaced the duo up front, while the latter two took up the central midfield positions, replacing Gardner and Milner. Delph had around fifteen minutes out on the left before being replaced by Shane Lowry, who went left-back and Shorey pushed further forward.

Due to the many substitutions that were being made, the game inevitably became disjointed. Fiorentina did have a chance to get an equaliser when a very harsh penalty was given against Curtis Davies for handball, but Gilardino hit the post.

The game then petered out really, another good save brought out from Guzan but we continued to look good going forward and we eased to the win in the end.

Overall there are some nice problems for MON come the Wigan game. Both Brad`s pulled off very good saves while at the opposite end Delfouneso and Heskey both did enough to put some pressure on the probable front two of Carew and Agbonlahor (the latter of which looked like he appreciated his break as he looked more like the Agbonlahor that worries defenders).

Meanwhile in midfield, Marc Albrighton has certainly done plenty this summer to give MON food for thought in terms of the normally automatic selections of Milner and Young – when Downing is fit, that gives us four very good players to cover them two positions. As for the more central positions, Fabian Delph was very good in the first half and quite possibly did enough to play his way into the Wigan game – I don`t want to wax lyrical about him too early but I have a good feeling about this one. He looks like a real proper player. Add to that the potential return of Petrov, plus the competition from NRC, Sidwell and Gardner, it will be interesting to see how MON decides to full his midfield.

Then, there is the back four… Eric Lichaj has probably done enough to suggest that Habib Beye may not walk straight into the team. Nicky Shorey did okay yesterday but still makes too many silly mistakes for my liking. I for one am hoping Bouma can come back and be the Bouma of old. But in the middle… well, we may have a new signing by Saturday but at the minute Cuellar and Davies is absolutely the way to go. Ciaran Clark did okay but there was one particular incident in the first half where we struggled physically to deal with a situation and while he generally looked decent enough, that type of thing makes you realise that this season is probably too soon for him. As far as I can see we still need two central defenders and while I am all for signing the like of Sneijder (can you imagine?!) the defence needs sorting, and time is nearly up.

I don`t want to end on a negative though. It was another good win – four wins in eleven days against some very good sides with contributions from the young lads is a nice way to set up the new season. Obviously that will all be forgotten if we lose to Wigan, but I for definitely hopeful we can end our Villa Park hoodoo against the Latics.

A pleasant afternoon and a nice win equals a good afternoon. Now, let us get on with the real thing…