I think it`s safe to say that I was one of roughly 35,000 fans (not counting the away fans of course) that walked out of Villa Park feeling very relieved today.
We didn`t play very well in the first-half, although we were much improved in the second, and it could have finished 2-2 if Albion hadn`t hit the bar, but at this moment I really don`t care.
That`s because, when I look at the table tonight, it says that we have 20 points, when this morning we had 17, and when I look in the newspapers tomorrow morning, the score will say Aston Villa 2-1 West Brom. I can understand why Albion`s fans would feel slightly aggrieved, after all, as fans, we`ve all been there. But the crucial thing to state here is that already this season, and especially since Houllier has been here, there have been plenty of occasions where we have played well but have not got the result we have deserved. Here, I`m thinking particularly of White Hart Lane, the Stadium of Light, Craven Cottage, and even the Britannia Stadium.
So, all in all, a relief filled performance if not one that was fantastically pleasing on the eye, and it was really pleasing to see a fair few of our players back in the fold. Heskey put in a good shift, even if he didn`t know a great deal about his goal! Cuellar also did fantastically well, although I`ll admit that before the game I thought that, if anyone in central defence was going to be dropped, it should be Collins. Finally, Reo-Coker put himself about, as per usual, and all of a sudden the squad looks slightly deeper, which should help over Christmas. The newly recovered players are also going to have the advantage of being a bit fresher, which will be another advantage.
Coming out of the ground, it was a bit difficult picking my man of the match too. My overriding thoughts were that it was going to be between Downing, Heskey and Hogg, although Lichaj did well even though he made a few basic errors, which, to be fair, is expected of player his age with his experience, and as I said, Cuellar was a rock too.
nto the game now, and two early Albion chances flashed wide of Friedel`s left-hand post in a start to the game that had many Villa fans feeling restless, and that anxiety only increased when Tchoyi skilfully drifted past the Villa defence before crashing his shot against the post.
After another Albion half-chance, it was Marc Albrighton`s turn to dazzle. The Brummie winger began a dazzling run before nutmegging Marek Cech in a move that will probably result in the Slovakian having to visit his doctors tomorrow to have his legs untangled, before putting a quality ball into the box that was prodded in by Disco Stu.
The remaining twenty five minutes were slightly subdued, at least compared to the second half, and it felt good to be going into the break with something to hold onto, as opposed to having to chase, which we had unfortunately become accustomed to over the course of the last few games.
Soon after the start of the second half, Disco Stu again flashed a dangerous ball across the box which was met by Albrighton but unfortunately he couldn`t quite get the right connection on it and it went wide.
James Morrison could then have scored for Albion but his shot ended up being too powerful to trouble the Villa goal.
Ashley Young fizzed a ball across the box that Emile Heskey failed to get a touch on and at that point, given Villa`s recent form, you could be forgiven for thinking that the lead wasn`t looking very safe, and they were fears that were upheld right up until the final whistle.
Ashley Young was treated to a disgraceful lack of professionalism after being consistently kicked all afternoon, and truth be told Gonzalo Jara should have been sent off with a second booking but Mark Halsey, making his Villa Park return after cancer so said Jack Woodward, was strangely lenient.
A second goal was finally scored which Villa`s second half performance arguably deserved. Young won a corner that nobody seemed able to connect with cleanly, but the ball found its way to Marc Albrighton who curled a lovely ball into the box. James Collins threw himself at it in the hope of scoring but missed the ball, which smashed of Heskey`s face and the back of the net bulged. Thank god that they all count!
The drama wasn`t over there, with the Austrian ex-Wigan player Paul Scharner heading emphatically past Brad Friedel to make it 2-1 just as the four minutes of stoppage time approached. The last action of the match was a Chris Brunt shot which looked certain to be going in but stayed out only thanks to a fantastically determined block by Welshman Collins, making me eat my pre-match words.
Hopefully this result will provide a lift to both players and management, but in particular our French boss Gerard Houllier who, to put it mildly, has not had a very good week. Looking at his Anfield achievements, I still believe that he could do a good job here, but not with these players, and that`s the key thing. They are O`Neill`s players who were signed to play O`Neill`s way, so there`s no doubt that players will leave, with possibly one or two surprises in there too.
All that`s left to say now is that, with Wigan coming up, hopefully we can use this result as a springboard to get a good result at the DW next week. If we can, then we can push up into the top half just outside the European places, with January coming up too so Houllier will soon get the chance to start his rebuilding process. Crisis? What crisis?
Brad Friedel 6
Possibly slightly harsh, but I’m really losing confidence in his ability to keep goal.
Eric Lichaj 7
Did really well against an attacking team and, like Hogg, got stuck in.
Stephen Warnock 7
Poor first-half but was better after the interval.
Carlos Cuellar 7
An absolute rock and a big improvement on Dunne’s recent form.
James Collins 7
Some crucial headers and blocks. An improvement on recently.
Marc Albrighton 7
A great piece of trickery to set up the first and a good cross for the second.
Stuart Downing 8
It used to be Ashley Young that made the Holte get out of their seats, but it’s beginning to be this man.
Barry Bannan 6
Didn’t reach recent levels. Seems to have one good game followed by one bad.
Jonathan Hogg 7
Really liked his performance today, it’s great that he got so stuck in.
Ashley Young 7
Was always a threat and is lucky not to be injured after today.
Emile Heskey 7
Seems to make a difference to our play, at least under Houllier anyway. Tired towards the end.
Nigel Reo-Coker 6
Was great to see him back and was his usual self.
Nathan Delfouneso N/A
Not enough time.
Not enough time.