WOLVERHAMPTON, ENGLAND - JANUARY 21: Darren Bent of Aston Villa celebrates scoring a penalty to make it 1-0 with team mate Marc Albrighton during the Barclays Premier League match between Wolverhampton Wanderers and Aston Villa at Molineux on January 21, 2012 in Wolverhampton, England. (Photo by Michael Regan/Getty Images)
There's really no other way to put it; this was the weirdest game of the season. A penalty for Villa; a penalty that never was for Wolves; what appeared to be a serious injury for Emmanuel Frimpong; a sending off for Wolves; and two of the most lovely goals you'll ever see courtesy of on-loan striker Robbie Keane. At the end of an excruciating eight minutes of stoppage time, Villa had somehow managed to hang on to a 3-2 lead and claimed a fairly massive three points, boosting them to 11th in the table and closing out the month's Premier League slate on a high note.
Villa came out trying to force it down Wolves throat, and it worked; Villa went ahead 1-0 in the 11th minute after Darren Bent converted a penalty, one which was awarded under fairly bizarre circumstances. Christopher Berra dawdled on the ball at the edge of his box, giving Bent time to run up on the ball from behind. When Berra went to make the clearance, he was likely quite surprised to see Bent's leg where the ball should have been, sending the Villa striker tumbling and the referee to point to the spot. I can safely say I've never seen a penalty awarded without the defender ever technically losing possession of a non-moving ball, but as weird as it may have been it was every bit a legitimate penalty. Unfortunately for Wolves, so was James Collins' challenge against David Edwards which occurred just two minutes later and went un-called.
Shortly after the non-penalty call, Wolves began to boss things. Ciaran Clark got the start at left back today, and Michael Kightly made the first 45 minutes of his afternoon a living hell as he torched the young defender time and again. It was Kightly that got the equalizer in the 21st minute, latching onto a great cross-field ball from Frimpong, leaving Clark flat-footed with some nifty footwork and finishing past Shay Given. Wolves continued to boss things, the frantic pace of the game leading to a lot of disorganized play and cheap giveaways from Villa. Almost exactly ten minutes after the first goal Roger Johnson headed Kightly's excellent corner to an unmarked David Edwards in the center of the box who left Given with no chance. Wolves didn't stop, and when the whistle blew to end the first half it was more than a slight relief to see that the score had stayed 2-1.
Alex McLeish decided the Kightly issue needed some addressing and made a rare halftime substitution, bringing Stephen Warnock on for Gabby Agbonlahor. Gabby was quite ill apparently, and so the decision to take him out rather than a non-attacking player was justifiable; whether the decision to start him despite his being ill was justifiable i another matter entirely, especially with two strikers already in the team and Barry Bannan still relegated to the bench. In the end though, bringing in Warnock turned out to be the right move as Kightly wasn't really heard from the rest of the way. Both sides seemed less than interested maintaining the frenetic pace into the second half, and from the outset the game settled into long spells of controlled possession for both sides with Villa edging things slightly. Villa would get their equalizer in the 51st minute, when Matthew Jarvis' hurried and poor clearance was intercepted by Clark and redirected to Keane just outside the box. In one move, Keane turned and shot past Wayne Hennessey, the kind of goal-from-nothing he was brought in to provide.
The atmosphere in the stadium had been rather tense all day, but it hadn't as of yet carried over to the pitch; that was about to change. Wolves came roaring right back, winning a corner that Frimpong sent past the post with diving header. Unfortunately, Stiliyan Petrov was going for the same ball with his foot, and it caught the young midfielder square in the face. It looked bad, as Frimpong was motionless for several minutes and eventually stretchered off, and if the BBC is correct it was bad; they're reporting he could be out for three months with a fractured cheekbone. If true that will effectively end his season and his time with Wolves, a huge blow to both the player and the club. Frimpong's absence was felt immediately, as the ball was no longer moving through the midfield nearly as smoothly as before and Villa began to take control.
It went from bad to worse in the 74th minute for Wolves. Karl Henry -one of the dirtier players in the Premier League, in case you'd forgotten- got tangled up with Marc Albrighton while going for a 50/50 ball. Henry responded by grabbing Albrighton around the neck and by the scruff of the shirt and then, while walking away, kicking him in the ribs and taking special care to scrape upwards with his spikes while doing do. Classy, classy stuff from a classy, classy man and rightfully earning him a straight red card (which he, predictably, acted shocked and hard-done-by upon seeing.) There wasn't much chance the fans at the Molineux could have seen exactly what Henry was sent off for, and they responded by booing Albrighton and calling him a "cheat" and "wanker" the rest of the way/ I'd be willing to be some of them will be rather embarrassed when they get home and see the replay. Or at least I'd hope they will be.
From there, it seemed like it was only a matter of time before Villa took the lead. And it was; 11 minutes to be exact. Not content that his first goal had really proven the point, Keane outdid himself with his second, a wickedly struck drive from outside the box once again that struck the bottom of the bar before crossing the line. Coming as it did in the 85th minute, it was easy to feel comfortable until you remembered that the Frimpong injury and Henry sending off would inevitably lead to a big chunk of stoppage time. And with McCarthy throwing the entire team forward, the final five minutes of regular time and eight minutes added on felt like an eternity. Wolves did not look like they were the least bit concerned about giving up another goal, and on a few occasions Villa came very close to putting it away. They didn't though, and the rest of the time was spent in sheer terror as Wolves sent cross after cross into a box full of heads and legs and the threat of dropped points.
Somehow though, Villa held on to claim the win. And a very big win it was, putting a lot of breathing room between themselves and the scary bit of the table. Now, a cynic might say that Villa needed to rely on an injury to one of Wolves' best players, a sending off and two wonder goals from an on-loan striker to beat a team that looks a decent bet to be relegated. All of those things are true. Bit Villa were actually quite good for most off the second half, and given the way the game was going it probably wouldn't have taken a sending-off for Villa to grab a winner. It's also important to look at the players that weren't included in the team; Charles N'Zogbia and Stephen Ireland were both injured, while Agbonlahor's illness forced Albrighton to spend the second half on his far-from-favored left flank. The first half wasn't good, but McLeish made the necessary changes and the team performed quite well as a result. Gary Gardner made his first Premier League start and was excellent, while Clark shook off a nightmare of a first half and put in an excellent performance over the second 45. In other words, a good win with encouraging things to take from it given the circumstances. We're also five places higher in the table and six points further clear of the relegation zone than we were at this point last season. Kind of a nerve-wracking game? Sure. But we're not in bad shape in the least.
I can live with that.