At the risk of sounding very much like one of my tired old worn out 33rpm long playing records, I make no excuse for saying that once again on our travels, we witnessed arguably another somewhat below par Villa performance, and yet once again, Martin and his band of merry men return to Brummagem with all three points tucked away very nicely in our back pockets. Not a habit that I am prepared to complain too long and loud about.
Whichever way you care to look at it, there can be no denying that we have that uncanny knack of while not always being at our most convincing best, there is always a shape, discipline, and commitment about the side that makes us more than a threat to any opposition , and even when with our backs against the wall, with the tide of the game threatening to wash us away, we are always more than capable, and only too ready and willing, to step up a notch or two, and turn a seemingly lost position into a winning one.
At the end of the first forty-five minutes at The Stadium Of Light, conversation amongst the travelling Villans once again centred around the hope that an uplifting and motivating team briefing from MON, would bring about a considerably improved second half showing from the claret and blues, and how often have we voiced that hope when on our travels throughout the campaign.
Yet how can you find fault with a team that has now won eight from eleven away games, collecting twenty-four points from the thirty-three points on offer? Quite simply, you cant. We are clearly doing something right, and while its fair to say that an times we’ve enjoyed the odd break or two, surely there comes a time when you have to admit that our successes are down more to quality and ability, and less to the run of the ball and good fortune that many of our opponents seem to want to claim.
We were only trailing to the home sides tenth minute strike, a slender 1-0 disadvantage, but in truth we had looked very much second best throughout the first period, only shaking ourselves from our lethargic attitude for about the final ten minutes, but even then never forcing the Sunderland keeper into a meaningful save, or even remotely threatening to get back onto level terms.
That Sunderland were only 1-0 ahead was due to their own failings, their own inability to press home and build on their slender lead, and as others have found out before them this season, if you fail to kill off this Villa team when you are in the ascendancy, then rest assured, it’s a fair bet that you will live to regret it.
We arrived on a cold and blustery wearside to learn that there would be no Martin Laursen in the starting line-up, the skipper missing just his second game of the premiership campaign, which meant a recall for Carlos Cuellar, and a starting eleven of Friedel, Reo-Coker, Cuellar, Davies, Luke Young, Milner, Sidwell, Petrov, Barry, Ashley Young, and Agbonlahor (Gardner came on for Sidwell on 75 mins).
We’d hardly settled down and had time to exercise the old vocal chords before we found ourselves behind, Collins heading home from a free kick, past a stranded Brad Friedel. Whitehead was denied by the feet of Brad Friedel when he looked like doubling The Black Cats’ lead, while the ‘other’ Ferdinand, the younger brother, flashed a header just wide, as we struggled to get any sort of a foothold in the game.
Cisse, sporting a conservative hair do for once, and Villa target(?) Jones both looked lively, but in truth, Sunderland looked short on genuine quality, although their work rate and effort certainly couldn’t be faulted.
We seemed to waken from our slumbers as the half time whistle approached, but even so, the Sunderland keeper had virtually nothing to do, until that is, Ash curled a free kick narrowly wide just before the break.
While a Villa equaliser would have been very welcome, it wouldn’t have been warranted, or justified. With Gabby once again operating as the lone striker, we just didn’t have enough up front to trouble the Sunderland rear-guard, and since falling behind, we simply hadn’t created anything of note.
Mart had clearly worked his magic throughout the break through, in the shape of delivering a few well deserved kicks up the rear, and as the second half got underway, we gave off an air of determination that had been lacking earlier, and slowly started to impose ourself upon the proceedings, although we came very close to falling further behind when Curtis Davies miscontrolled a long clearance, almost allowing Cisse an opening.
Finally, on the hour mark, our quick, precise counter attacking football put in its first appearance of an up until then disappointing afternoon. Gareth and Gabby fed Ash, who left his opponent for dead, before swinging in a centre to the far post. Both Jimmy Milner and (I think it was) Chimbonda went for the cross, with the former succeeding in forcing the ball home, possibly via his shoulder, as the pair went to ground. 1-1, game on.
We finally started to look much the better side, and it looked now as if there was only going to be one winner, but that was to change just ten minutes or so later, when Ashley was straight red-carded for a challenge on one of their lot.
It was an ugly tackle, no doubt about it, certainly out of character for Ash, and it was particularly annoying not least because he had started to look the player most likely to turn the one point into three.
I don’t think that referee Mike Dean had much choice though, even allowing for the fact that Cisse had escaped without so much as a yellow card for a similar challenge a short while earlier. Still, two wrongs certainly doesn’t make a right, and so with us down to ten men, I think most of the travelling 3,000 contingent from Brummagem, plus probably MON himself, would have at that stage of the game, settled for the point.
Cisse planted a decent opportunity straight at Brad, as Sunderland looked to wrestle back the initiative, a chance he really should have put away, but then a long Friedel clearance upfield was totally mis-read by the home defence, and substitute McShane was penalised by referee Dean for up-ending Gabby inside the area.
Up stepped Cap’n Gareth to hammer home with ferocity from the resultant spot-kick. 2-1 to The Good Guys, and three more precious points collected.
What a pity that late developments at The Reebok and Stamford Bridge slightly took some of the gloss away from our latest three pointer, but even so, we can only continue to do exactly what we’re doing, and not concern ourselves with the performances/results of our competitors.
How we cope without Ashley, and whether or not MON will be able to strengthen before the window closes, are two big questions that will obviously now be directed our way, but for the next few days at least, lets just enjoy and celebrate another away-day three pointer.
We have our F.A. Cup fourth round tie ahead of us next weekend, before the trip to Pompey, and then the mouth-watering home game against Chelsea.
No doubt about it, by the months end, we’ll have a much better idea of our prospects and chances throughout the final three months plus of the campaign.
Right, my marks out of ten:-
Friedel – 7
Reo-Coker – 6
Cuellar – 5
Davies – 6
L.Young – 6
Milner – 7
Petrov – 6
Sidwell – 5
Barry – 7
A Young – 6
Gabby – 6
Gardner – 5
on for Sidwell (73mins)