LONDON, ENGLAND - AUGUST 13: Aaron Hughes of Fulham is challenged by Gabriel Agbonlahor of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Fulham and Aston Villa at Craven Cottage on August 13, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images)
Aston Villa had some decent moments, but in the end there was far too little creativity to produce a goal against a Fulham side that played the off-side trap to perfection, a smart decision against an opponent whose only real plan of attack was to hit Darren Bent over the top. Villa scrapped a few chances here and there but never really looked like a consistent threat to score despite dominating the run of play for the majority of the first half. The second half was a different story, with Fulham rampant and spending the majority of their time in Villa's final third. Luckily Villa's defense looked well-organized and equal to the task, and when Fulham had good looks Shay Given was able to make some pretty fantastic saves to preserve the clean sheet.
While a goalless draw is far from an ideal way to start the season, there are reasons to be encouraged by the performance of the team in general. N'Zogbia was clearly quite fatigued towards the end of his time on the pitch, but in the first half he looked every bit the player most Villa fans were hoping for when he signed with the club. The defense showed no sign of their slipshod performances of last season, and though by its very nature a Dunne-Collins pairing is never going to be all that relaxing to watch they got the job done, which is all that matters. Stephen Warnock had a few defensive gaffes early on in the game but for the majority of the afternoon actually looked fairly good at the back, making several excellent blocks of shots looked to be headed at the very least towards the target. His crossing in general left a bit to be desired, but he did whip in a few pretty nice balls and did a good job taking the initiative to start a few pretty dangerous counters without putting himself in position to get caught out.
- Shay Given really was tremendous today; a lesser keeper probably doesn't make some of those saves and it's fair to say he saved us two points today. Two of what are probably going to be many.
- Gabby Agbonlahor worked his tail off, making some very nice defensive plays, chasing down balls that looked like lost causes and in general just making a nuisance of himself. I'm still unconvinced that he's the best option at either of the wide midfield spots, but if he's going to be playing there it's nice to see him play as well as he did.
- Emile Heskey, on the other hand, is not a midfielder. He is not even close to a midfielder. All he does is hold up play and knock down balls, and while he does both of those things well that's not really what you want from a winger. I get his value. But he should never be on the pitch unless he's doing anything but playing as a center forward.
- Charles N'Zogbia probably has a little ways to go before he's 90 minutes fit. He was an entirely different player in the second half, and McLeish was right to take him off. He was getting sloppy and his delivery just didn't have the same zip on it. But when he is 90 minute fit, we're going to realize what a huge bargain he was.
- Jean Makoun >>> Stiliyan Petrov. I don't much care how long Stan has been the captain, he's just not the best option to start in central midfield right now.
- This wasn't alll that exciting a game, but that doesn't mean they're all going to be that way. Villa's tactics for the majority of the day were far from negative, and as the players get more comfortable with each other the creativity will pick up. A lot of people will look at the 0-0 and decide that every horrible thing they thought about McLeish must be true; that's simply not fair.
- With the above being said, I'm not all that disappointed with the result but I was very disappointed with the last two minutes of extra time. Villa held the ball for the majority of it, in Fulham's final third, and made absolutely no attempt at advancing towards goal. The ball just bounced around the midfield until the whistle blew. I get preserving a draw, but it's not as though Villa had been up against it all afternoon. Yes, Fulham were better in the second half but Villa adjusted and the last fifteen minutes or so were fairly calm. I'm not saying Villa should have gone full-bore towards goal, but what harm is there is using the last 30 seconds or so to get a cross in and try to sneak away with three points? It was just far too passive for my taste, and I hope it doesn't become a habit.
So, not the most thrilling game but certainly not the worst way to start the year. A point at Craven Cottage is a decent result and if you'll recall correctly, even an impressive and comprehensive win at home on opening day is no guarantee that the team will have further success early in the year. Up next is-you guessed it-Blackburn, who pay visit to Villa Park after dropping their opener to Wolves at home. That's a game Villa should win and hopefully we'll get a better (and more encouraging) look at what the rest of the season may hold.