It was the 88th minute of the game and Aston Villa were 2 goals up against Stoke City. Nobody saw a comeback coming, probably not even Stoke. But out of the blue the Potters popped up with 2 goals and drew the game.
This all took place at Villa Park on Sunday in what turned out to be MUCH more than ‘just another game’.
Before it had even kicked off, Villa manager Martin O’Neill made a big spectacle out of the game with his midweek antics over in Moscow. O’Neill dropped no fewer than 8 first team players for the trip to Russia, playing a shadow side, with the motivation behind it being to rest the key players for the Stoke (and upcoming Man City) game. In doing so, he put a huge onus on Villa to get all 3 points against Stoke.
Having been eliminated from all cup competitions, Villa now had all their eggs in the ‘top four’ basket and with Arsenal drawing a blank yet again, the chance to open up an 8 point lead was there for the taking.
Martin O’Neill made up no lies for his UEFA Cup selection policy, preferring to be totally honest about Villa’s priorities, that being the push to reach the Champions League qualifying places. The fewer games will no doubt help, but the fans are not happy to have another season of silverware chasing disappear up the swanny in such a fashion.
It’s been a tough old fortnight for the second-city side; losing to Everton in the FA Cup, losing to CSKA Moscow over two legs, losing to a rejuvinated Chelsea and finally losing a 2-goal lead to struggling Stoke.
So what was the problem against Stoke?
Martin O’Neill has suggested over-confidence caused the dramatic downfall in the dying minutes, but for me the big problem for Villa is one that has been ringing round the club for a long time, and inspired so much speculation in the run up to January, linking Villa with just about every striker in the game; they don’t score enough.
You’d think that being the 5th top scorers in the league and averaging more than 1.5 goals per game might be enough to keep a Villa fan (like me) happy, but if there was a tally of the amount of attacks they have had, you’d see how many opportunities they fail to convert. Villa have dominated many games and failed to score in them, take for example the Wigan and Fulham games. Villa have won a lot of games this season by constant bombardment, but teams like Man Utd or Chelsea would’ve won these games with 4 or 5 goals after so much attacking play, whereas Villa end up with 1 or 2.
For the vast majority of the game (certainly in the first half) the ball was in Stoke’s half but Villa failed to make enough chances count. Gabriel Agbonlahor was particularly off the boil, missing 2 easy chances and generally not being a strong enough presence. January saw the arrival of Emile Heskey, but he is most dangerous when the ball is played through the middle and Villa are more of a flanks team.
Ashley Young is constantly getting down the wing and putting in crosses, even though Villa are not getting to the headers, but still time after time they go wide through Young and Milner, then cross it… and chance over. Really they should either cut inside more or play the ball along the floor. Very few Villa goals actually come from crosses.
What is needed is a poacher. A Ruud Van Nistelrooy / Michael Owen type. Someone who does very little else but score. Or a great headerer of the ball, would also be great for Villa, someone like Shearer or more recently, Tim Cahill or Ronaldo. A player who loses his marker, wins the header and knows where to direct it. With a strong headerer (is that a even a word?!), Villa could be thrashing teams week in week out.
And a quick word on the full back situation
I’m now left wandering why O’Neill continues to play Cuellar at right back, when he hasn’t performed well there for a string of games. The Spaniard could do a better job at centre back, with both Gardner and Reo-Coker available as sit-in right backs or even, god forbid, he could play the clubs ‘actual’ right back at right back. Nicky Shorey has shown a definite return towards the quality that made O’Neill sign him and would jump at the chance of playing left back, allowing Luke Young to switch over to his desired flank.
Oh and next time Villa play Stoke, can someone make both teams aware that football games last 90 minutes!
Martin Banks writes on the Aston Villa Blog.