The way it ended was heartbreaking, but it’s tough to deny that taking a point away from Liberty Stadium is a huge improvement over recent results. Has Aston Villa managed to stop the bleeding, or did they just get lucky?
The way things started, it looked like it was going to be yet another very long day for Aston Villa. Wayne Routledge put the home side ahead 1-0 after just nine minutes, making amends for a missed chance on a near-identical opening just minutes earlier. Aston Villa looked shaky from the start, and their immediate response to going behind was not encouraging. Never had Liberty Stadium's Joy Division inspired refrain been more appropriate, as Swansea continued to tear Villa apart for the remainder of the first half.
Before Christian Benteke and Andreas Weimann combined for one of the most against-the-run-of-play goals you're ever going to see, it was somewhat miraculous that the home side's lead wasn't three or four, so complete was their domination. Michu hit the post on two occasions and Brad Guzan put in yet another world-class performance to keep his side in it, and though Swansea found themselves on top after the break the game clearly had a much different feel.
Instead of relying on last-ditch defending and sheer dumb luck to keep the game within reach, Aston Villa actually began to defend confidently and ask some questions of their own on the counter attack. Swansea was the better side in the second half, but not by nearly so wide a margin as they had been in the first, and Aston Villa looked a team reborn. When Weimann was pulled down in the area and Benteke converted from the spot, it felt as though Villa might be getting away with something but it never felt as though they didn't deserve their lead. Was it harsh on Swansea? Absolutely. But it was their failure to convert their chances in the first half and Villa's new-found competence in the second half that saw them behind, not some cruel twist of fate.
From a neutral perspective, there was likely some justice in Danny Graham's equalizer deep into stoppage time. But from a partisan perspective, it was soul-crushing. There were rumblings that the reaction from the Villa team were somehow indicative of their not caring, but that's a lazy, catch-all indictment that seldom has any truth. To me they looked like a young team that was once again too shell-shocked to muster much in the way of emotion, and that's what worried me about the game more than anything. Once Villa began to play with some confidence, they looked like a decent team. Not world-beaters by any stretch, but a team that shouldn't have much difficulty staying up. They once again looked like a side that supporters could feel confident was a solid base from which to grow.
The second Graham's put-back crossed the line, they looked once again like a weary and beaten unit, and despite there being just another 60 seconds or so left before the final whistle, Swansea very nearly scored a third. The mental fragility of this team isn't really news, but it was discouraging (if not unexpected) to see nonetheless. And that, to me, is Paul Lambert's greatest challenge to overcome. The level of talent on this team is plenty high enough to stay in the league (and comfortably) but there's more than just talent involved in the equation. I'm beyond skeptical of the "lack of experience will doom Villa" narrative, but this team's tendency to have the wind taken out of their sails at the first inkling of difficulty has made a tough job even tougher.
There are reasons to be encouraged by this performance, and one would hope that once the initial shock of conceding an equalizer deep into stoppage time wears off that the team will see the result as a positive step. With Ipswich Town, Bradford City and Southampton the next three on tap, expectations will be high. But this team's lack of self belief is a serious issue, and until it's addressed they're always going to be a shaky start away from disaster.