After a week of much rumour, considerable debate, passion filled discussion and heated argument amongst those of the claret and blue persuasion, following on last weekend’s seven to one reversal down at Stamford Bridge, it was good to get back to the serious business of on-field action, as we headed northwards up the M6 to The Reebok Stadium, home of Owen Coyle’s Bolton Wanderers.
Following our 5-1 victory over The Trotters earlier in the campaign, we had to feel somewhat confident of picking up all three points on offer, to complete the double over a club still far from certain of retaining their premiership status come season’s end, but when you take into account the events surrounding Villa Park these past few days, allied to the fact that Bolton themselves would be still smarting from a heavy defeat on their home turf on their last time out, it was clear to all that we could not expect to have things our own way in the north-west, certainly not if Messrs Cahill, Knight, Jlloyd and any other ex-Villans that might find their way into Coyle’s starting line up, had anything to say about the outcome.
With many Villans at boiling point following the Chelsea debacle, clearly only a Villa victory would calm the savage breast, and even then no doubt, only temporarily. Certainly the possibility of a defeat didn’t bear thinking about, but such a scenario was far from our minds as we cruised towards Bolton, enjoying the melodic sounds of Emerson, Lake and Palmer, and with many other Villa vehicles joining us on the road, it was obvious that as per usual, the traveling Villans were out in force merely to support the lads, enjoy the day, and not pre-analyse the consequences of defeat, unless and until the possibility became a reality.
Following on from last Saturday’s hammering, Martin made three changes to the starting line-up, bringing in Carlos Cuellar, Fabian Delph and Stewart Downing, replacing Luke Young, James Milner and Steve Sidwell.
Our team:- Friedel, Cuellar, Dunne, Collins, Warnock, Downing, Petrov, Delph, Ashley Young, with Carew and Agbonlahor up front.
On the bench we had Guzan, Beye, Siswell, Milner, Heskey, Delfouneso, and Luke Young.
From a personal point of view I was delighted to see young Delph get a much deserved, if somewhat belated, return to first team action. Whereas most of us agree that our six million pound signing from Leeds United is very definitely one for the future, I must admit to having been impressed from what I’ve seen of him, as a player with more than enough ability, to bring something to the table right now. If you’re good enough, you’re old enough. He can freshen things up in the middle of the park, add a little bit of much needed bite, and he’s no slouch at getting forward either.
We made our way to our seats, to be greeted by a few of the ‘away-day’ regulars, no one slow to tell us about the tremendous reception MON received as he stepped off the coach. With his name being constantly and passionately chanted by the traveling fans, I think Mart was left in no doubt as to what the ‘away-day’ Villans think about him and his long term future at Birmingham B6.
In a very open start to the game, the Israeli midfielder Cohen twice rifled in shots from the edge of the area. His first effort rolled narrowly wide, while the second forced Brad Friedel into a routine save, taken low down at his right-hand post. Bolton were certainly on the front foot, desperately in need of points to keep themselves out of the drop zone.
On the eleventh minute mark though, Ashley Young curled home what was to prove to be the game winning goal, following a neat exchange of passes down the left wing with Stephen Warnock. Warnock fed an incisive through-ball to Ash, who with space in front of him, curled a sweet right-foot effort beyond the grasp of the veteran Jaaskelainen in the home goal, and just inside the left-hand post. A moment of genuine class and quality from Ashley, who I must say, over recent weeks, has looked the superb talent that we all know him to be.
I have to comment here about Bolton’s very impressive young on-loan talent from the Arsenal, Jack Wilshere. He looks the real deal, a young man destined for a very bright future. In one moment of skill, he picked up a loose ball on the edge of the area, and sent in a fine twenty yard effort that flashed just wide.
Richard Dunne bravely blocked a goal bound effort from Muamba, but we always looked in control. Strong at the back, and a constant threat going forward. The only concern was that with plenty of possession, we should have been adding to our lead, particularly as we expected the home side to throw everything at us second half.
Gabby nearly provided the two goal cushion, Jaaskelainen managing to tip over his powerful drive, and that close call for Wanderers was soon followed by a sweeping Villa move, Gabby finding Ash with a superb crossfield ball, but with a couple of team-mates open, Ash went for the glory, bringing a smart save from Bolton’s Finnish keeper. The rebound fell to Stan Petrov giving him a glorious chance to double our lead, but his weak header fell gently into the arms of Jaaskelainen. The story of our season these missed chances. The game should be over and won, instead here we are again hanging on to a slender one goal lead.
Just before the break Ashley attempted to repeat his opening strike, but only managed to swerve another right-foot effort just wide, from a very similar position.
So 1-0 up at the break, and while the opening half hadn’t seen us hit the heights, I think its fair to say that we well deserved our advantage. While Bolton certainly aren’t Chelsea, the lads looked back to their assured best at the back, were committed and well up for the cause.
Into the second half, and Stewart Downing had a twenty-five yard free kick deflected narrowly wide, before the same player headed just over following an Ashley Young corner.
Jaaskelainen made a brave stop in the 80th minute. when Emile Heskey, on for John Carew, attempted to turn home a low ball at the near post from an Ashley Young right wing cross, and then Gabby should have wrapped the points up, when he raced clear following a drop ball, but he rolled the ball just wide of Jaaskelainen’s left hand post. A great chance, once again spurned.
A flurry of activity from the home lot in the closing minutes, but we weren’t troubled, and ended the game victorious
thanks to Ash’s early gem.
The action wasn’t over yet though. Oh no. To ensure we got our money’s worth, Messrs Downing, Agbonlahor and Wilshere decided to enjoy a piece of post match pushing and shoving, but there was ‘The man of the hour and half’, Martin O’Neill to step in and act as the peacemaker.
Not a spectacular performance, but three very well deserved and important points as we strive to better the last two season’s sixth place finish.
Right, here we go with my marks out of ten for today’s battling heroes.
Brad Friedel – 6
Carlos Cuellar – 7
Richard Dunne – 7
James Collins – 7
Stephen Warnock – 7
Stan Petrov – 6
Fabian Delph – 7
Stewart Downing -7
Ashley Young – 8
Gabby Agbonlahor – 6
John Carew – 5
Steve Sidwell – 6
Emile Heskey – 5