LONDON, ENGLAND - APRIL 16: Gabriel Agbonlahor of Aston Villa celebrates after scoring the winning goal with teammate Stiliyan Petrov during the Barclays Premier League match between West Ham United and Aston Villa at the Boleyn Ground on April 16, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Tom Dulat/Getty Images)
This felt, right until the end, like yet another missed opportunity. Aston Villa were the far better side for the majority of the game and the entire second half felt like the lead-up to a winner. But as the time ticked away, dread crept in; any time West Ham countered towards the end it felt like it would all come crashing down. So when it was the opposite that occurred-when Aston Villa's back line brushed aside the pressure from the Hammers and Gabriel Agbonlahor rose to meet Ashley Young's chipped cross and hammer home past Robert Green a minute into injury time-well, you can imagine my surprise. That just isn't the kind of thing we've come to expect from Villa this season. It's typically been the opposite, points dropped and solid efforts wasted by late collapses time and again. And while we have a great deal more evidence that this team is more inclined towards those types of disappointments than the alternative, it's been two games in a row that Villa have had every opportunity to finish the game with less than they should have, and that's encouraging. This team has looked quite good three weeks in a row now, earning solid results with strong performances and all but eliminating any fears of relegation. It's too early to say that things have finally clicked, but it's a start.
This game started out in less than encouraging fashion to say the least. Villa created pressure right from the whistle, but Stilyan Petrov's ambitious shot from distance ended any threat. West Ham took control after that and after yet another display of sloppy set-piece defense, Robbie Keane found himself all alone in space just outside the six yard box and finished neatly past Brad Friedel to make it 1-0. A great deal of the blame goes to Ashley Young, as it was his failure to leave the far post after the ball had been partly cleared allowing Keane to stay onside, but it was far from an individual effort. Friedel handled what was a less than stellar corner quite poorly (though there might have been a shout for interference) and the attempts to clear were poor. Not a particularly confidence inspiring start, but given West Ham's poor defensive it was crucial that Aston Villa respond well. There were goals in this game and I think most people knew that, but the threat of a Wolves-style capitulation hung in the air in the immediate aftermath.
Luckily, Villa responded well, taking the game to West Ham and creating decent pressure on the home side right away. The Hammers didn't look content with their slim lead however, and things settled into an open contest with both sides having their chances with Villa taking perhaps just a bit more attacking intent. They weren't able to convert the pressure into a goal right away however and it was West Ham with the better chances, Carlton Cole being shoved just outside the box by Richard Dunne eliciting cries of protest from the home side (a foul likely would have resulted in Dunne being sent off and it was close enough that a penalty was suspected) but the referee waved play on. Cole put the hearts of Villa fans in their throat once again five minutes later when he fired a low volley that Friedel was only just able to keep out. Villa for their part were holding more of the possession in West Ham's final third but the final ball was absent, and with the home side continuing to look every bit a threat to score, it was an uneasy half hour.
Things could have been slightly more comfortable after Darren Bent climbed and netted the apparent equalizer in the 23rd minute but the goal was disallowed after the referee blew for a foul against Bent. It wasn't as egregiously poor a decision as the missed offside call against Newcastle, but in a game that was allowed a fair bit of physical play throughout it seemed a bit light. Hard to complain when Villa had so recently been lucky not to go down to ten men, but frustrating to be certain. It was the beginning of a more threatening spell for Villa however, capped by Darren Bent's 37th minute equalizer that resulted from some very poor decision making by Mark Noble, some heads-up play by Emile Heskey and a fantastic ball in from Luke Young. Noble dawdled on possession at the edge of the box and Heskey slid in to knock the ball to Ashley Young, who casually slipped the ball to Luke Young at the edge of the box in space. The Villa left-back fired in a cross that Bent only needed to put the lightest of touches on with this head to put things back level.
The equalizer did a great deal to ease some of the tension heading into the half, but it was clear that something needed to change if Villa wished to leave Upton Park with all three points. It was apparent from the way the team came out of the gates that Gerard Houllier recognized this as well; Villa came out with a great deal more attacking intent, running right at West Ham from the start and putting immense pressure on the home side. Robert Green made a massive save on Ashley Young's low, curling free kick just shy of 49 minutes and Darren Bent drilled a low effort from just inside the box that looked destined for the bottom corner before taking a deflection and skipping wide. Villa were enjoying all of the possession and all of the danger, and having watched the game twice I feel safe in concluding that there wasn't really much change in shape but there was most certainly a change in emphasis. After a first half in which Villa looked content to trade spells of possession and look to counter, in the second half it looked as though the goal was to dominate the ball and that's pretty much exactly what happened.
All the same, Villa's dominance and quality of attacking play didn't result in a goal and as time went on things began to get antsy. Another penalty shout came when Nigel Reo-Coker slid in to dispossess Gary O'Neil at the edge of the box, but replays showed that while the challenge was a heavy one (and resulted in O'Neil being stretchered off) it was by the standards of the game a fair one, with Reo-Coker getting to the ball first and the contact coming on the follow-through of O'Neil's interrupted shot. Damba Ba came on for the injured O'Neil with West Ham shifting to a very attacking 4-3-3 but the tactical change didn't have much effect in terms of the flow of the game, Villa still in control and making Robert Green's life fairly unpleasant.
Chance after chance went without a pay-off for Aston Villa; Stewart Downing centering to a wide open Darren Bent in the center of the box only for Bent to miss catching the ball squarely and roll it harmlessly at Green. ashley Young sent in a wickedly curling shot that caught Green helplessly off his line, but it curled just a bit too much and went wide of the post. Just shy of 80 minutes Gabriel Agbonlahor came on for Emile Heskey who looked quite good on the day but was noticeably beginning to tire and is in general less of a scoring threat than an asset for his distribution and hold-up ability. Villa ratcheted up the pressure yet another notch in response. And yet it was West Ham with more dangerous opportunities, allowing Thomas Hitzlsperger a shot in space from range (generally a poor idea) and Dunne losing Carlton Cole in the box with the West Ham striker's lob going just over the bar from a difficult angle. Coming into the day a draw might have felt like an acceptable result, but after such a strong second half that didn't feel true any longer, and allowing West Ham to snatch a winner would have felt devastating.
And just when I (and I'm sure plenty of other Villa fans) had given up hope, Gabriel Agbonlahor met another fantastic ball from Ashley Young and with Darren Bent providing a distraction for Robert Green he headed coolly into the back of the net and sent Villa's supporters, Gerard Houllier and his teammates into rapture. It was a win Villa had done everything to deserve (in the second half particularly) and despite the fact that I think most would have been happy with the display it was massive for the team to take all three from a game where their play had merited it. Because despite some poor performances, a tendency to allow the opposition late equalizers and winners and at times a lack of killer instinct Villa have also been hugely, massively unlucky on numerous occasions. It's easy to look back several games this season and think that, were it not for just a smidgen of good fortune in a few of those contests, would be right back around where they were last season. That's revisionist of course but there's also some truth to it and no matter what, with all of the chances that went just wide or were stolen away by Green on the afternoon it was just a fantastic release of tension and melting away of at least some of the frustration on the year to see the team have its efforts rewarded.
I'm just superstitious enough to think twice about proclaiming the club's relegation worries a thing of the past, but with Villa now seven points clear of the drop and into the top half of the table I'll just say that we're probably justified in breathing a bit easier. Despite the uneasy nature of the year Villa are now two places behind their standing on this date last season. And while they're also 15 points behind their total at this point, to focus on that instead of standing in the league is dishonest. At this point last season league leaders Chelsea had eight more points that current leaders Manchester United. Last place Wolves have more than double the points that Portsmouth had at this point. There's just more parity in the 2010/11 Premier League than there was in the 2009/10 Premier League and that goes for every single part of the table.
Fact is, given what this club has gone through, the fact that a top-half finish is well within reach is stunning. I don't wish to turn this post into yet another debate over the merits of Gerard Houllier, because my feelings on the subject are well known. I just think that this team, for all the critical things I've said about them, deserves a bit of credit. They've endured a season full of turmoil, key injuries and borderline fan-revolt and come out looking to finish strong, putting the relegation fears to rest and looking like a very solid team through the final stretch. I think it says a lot about their character and resolve which has been (rightly) questioned at times this season that they've delivered when it mattered most and given us a lot to look forward to next year.
Things could still go ugly and get uncomfortable again, but I actually find myself confident that by the time the difficult tests of Arsenal and Liverpool come around that Aston Villa will have put themselves in position for a respectable finish. This team isn't bad. There's a lot of talent here and they finally look like they've adapted to Gerard Houllier's style (and that Houllier has adapted his style to them, to be fair) and with a full transfer window to come there's reason to be hopeful that next year could be quite special. That's not exactly knocking-on-the-door of the Champions League like we've had the past few years. But it's something.
I think I may actually kind of like these guys again. Don't think I saw that coming.