LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 25: Shaun Wright-Phillips of QPR gets past Barry Bannan of Aston Villa during the Barclays Premier League match between Queens Park Rangers and Aston Villa at Loftus Road on September 25, 2011 in London, England. (Photo by Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images)
Well, that was a punch in the gut. It really did feel like Aston Villa were going to escape from Loftus Road with a very fortunate win, but an unlucky own goal from Richard Dunne deep into stoppage time leveled terms and gave QPR a point that their performance most likely deserved. Had Villa performed at anything close to their second half level in the first half things may well have been different, but despite the slow start there was much to be encouraged by. It wasn't an especially pleasant end, but Villa fans have reason to be pleased with much of what they saw. It's something to build on.
Villa's performance in the first half of this game was absolutely dreadful. Probably the worst 45 minutes of football they've put in all season, at least in a Premier League game. QPR were able to make hay down both of Villa's flanks and through the heart of midfield, and if not for an excellent effort from James Collins and Richard Dunne in the center of defense things could have gone to the break much differently. It's tempting to jump to the conclusion that negative tactics were to blame, but that wouldn't be fair; it became pretty clear from Alex McLeish's mood on the touchline that he was not at all happy with his side's performance. It appeared as though Villa wanted to attack and take the game to QPR, it just wasn't happening for much of the first half. Villa's only real chance in the first 45 came from a sublime free kick from Barry Bannan and Paddy Kenny did exceptionally well to tip the curler away at the last minute, but it was very much against the run of play; for the home side's part, they kept the visitors under fairly consistent pressure but their lack of finishing skill was evident and despite their dominance of the run of play Shay Given didn't have a whole lot to do.
Things improved greatly right from the start of the second half. It didn't appear as though a whole lot changed tactically for Villa, so it seems fair to assume that McLeish laid into his side during the intermission. I hope he wrote down whatever it is he said in the locker room, because the first half hour of the second half was the best Villa has looked since he's taken over; Villa were able to establish some fluidity in the passing game, Barry Bannan shook off a very poor first half to become a real threat in the attack and the visitors kept their foot quite consistently on the home side's neck. In the 58th minute the pressure paid off; Armand Traore gave Gabriel Agbonlahor's shirt the lightest of tugs as he raced to meet Stephen Warnock's cross at the far post, the Villa striker went down and Michael Oliver pointed to the spot. It was a soft penalty, but Oliver let very little go all game long and Traore did indeed pull Gabby's shirt. It's the kind of penalty that's infuriating when it goes against you, but there's just enough legitimacy in the decision to prevent you from feeling too bad when it goes your way.
Barry Bannan stepped up and sent the spot kick low and into the corner, and though Kenny guessed right he was unable to get a hand to it. Not the most convincing penalty conversion in the history of the world, but once the ball touches the inside of the net it's hard to complain. And it was encouraging to see that despite going ahead, on the road, Villa continued to press for another. Several brilliant passing sequences came very close to producing a breakthrough and QPR were reeling, but the home side weathered the storm as time ticked by the regrouped and mounted a search for the equalizer. Villa's attack lost a lot of its edge when Barry Bannan-who apparently picked up a knock at some point just prior-was withdrawn for Marc Albrighton in the 72nd minute. Albrighton actually looked better than he has for most of this season so far, but he'll never bring the same creativity that Bannan can provide and with Charles N'Zogbia continuing to struggle there just wasn't anyone with a whole lot of ideas left on the pitch for Villa.
Still, despite being forced to change their approach over the last 10-15 minutes, Villa looked hungry for the win and the performance of Collins and Dunne was immense. When Traore was shown a second yellow for a rash challenge on Albrighton, it really began to feel like Villa had things tucked away. But then Collins and Alan Hutton made a massive blunder in defense that led to space down the flank for Heidar Helguson to send in a cross that Stephen Warnock cleared as far as the onrushing Dunne off of whom the ball deflected into his own net. A Richard Dunne equalizer in the 94th minute felt very much like something we would have seen last season, but in the big man's defense there was little he could have done to avoid it. It was a wrong place/wrong time situation, and so frustrating in that Warnock looked to have done so well in keeping it out. It's perhaps somewhat ironic that the half of the back line "responsible" for the own goal were not the half that made the error that gave QPR the opportunity, but "them's the breaks" as they say.
So, a pretty awful way for this one to end. But in reality, Villa never deserved three points from this game. The penalty on Gabby was soft as could be, and QPR had a very legitimate shout for a hand ball in the area by Alan Hutton turned away. I'm happy with what I saw from Villa in the second half, but on the whole this wasn't a performance worthy of three points. Signs of encouragement? Yes. But there's still work to be done. Next up is Wigan at home, and that's a game Villa almost have to win. Play like they did in the second half today and they should. They'll win a lot of games, in fact. But it's easier said than done. It's one thing to show you're capable of playing a certain way; it's an entirely different thing to do it consistently.