Aston Villa. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1
DALIAN ATKINSON added insult to injury time by poaching a potentially priceless goal for Aston Villa in the dying seconds of a Coca-Cola Cup semi-final first leg dominated by Tranmere at Prenton Park last night.
The First Division's fifth- placed side would have settled beforehand for a two-goal lead to take to Villa Park, and had probably exceeded their wildest expectations when John Aldridge apparently put the tie beyond Villa's reach by adding to goals by Ian Nolan and Mark Hughes in the closing stages. So Tranmere's disappointment was acute when Atkinson volleyed the away goal which will count double in the event of the aggregate score being level after extra time a week on Sunday.
Once they have got over the timing of Villa's riposte, however, Tranmere can be excused if their thoughts stray once more to the towers and the glory. The Wirral to Wembley route is well worn, John King's men having travelled it four times in as many years. Villa, who face another awkward game at Bolton in the FA Cup on Sunday, will have to produce a vast improvement in order to reach their first Wembley final since 1977.
Ron Atkinson insisted his players had not underestimated Tranmere, especially after the so-called Black Wednesday endured by Premiership clubs in the FA Cup last week. 'Only time will tell whether Dalian's goal does prove to be crucial,' the Villa manager said. 'What is certain is that five seconds earlier we were looking buried.
'It will take a superhuman effort on our behalf to turn that around. The important thing is that the boys believe they can do it, though if we play like that we haven't got a chance.'
All the composure that had earned Villa a 100 per cent record in six away cup fixtures was undermined in the space of 19 first-half minutes, during which Tranmere's pounds 1m hotchpotch twice breached their pounds 12m opponents' rearguard. Pat Nevin, the Scottish international winger, was their chief tormentor although the goals came from a less likely source.
The first arrived in only the fifth minute, when a Nevin pass deflected off a defender into the path of the overlapping Nolan. The right-back's angled drive from level with the penalty spot entered the net off the underside of the bar - his first goal this season and only the second of his career.
Villa, had not unduly troubled a Tranmere defence depleted by two suspensions before the hosts doubled their advantage. Nevin again provided an 'assist', his corner being only half-cleared to the edge of the penalty area where Hughes was lurking. The sweeper's lob into the top right corner of Mark Bosnich's goal was worthy of his Manchester United namesake, and was also his first goal in 17 months.
Villa's desire to press forward cost them dearly 12 minutes from time. Kenny Irons sent Aldridge clear and as Villa looked vainly for an offside flag, the veteran striker played a one-two with the near post before stroking his 15th goal of the season.
Tranmere's night appeared complete. When their defence failed to clear a free-kick dubiously awarded against Irons and headed on by Tony Daley, Dalian Atkinson demonstrated ruthlessly that it was not.
Tranmere Rovers (1-4-3-2): Nixon; Hughes; Nolan, McGreal, Garnett, Brannan; Nevin, O'Brien, Irons; Aldridge, Malkin. Substitutes not used: Morrissey, Mungall, Coyne (gk).
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Bosnich; Cox, Barratt, McGrath, Staunton (Froggatt, 75); Houghton, Richardson, Townsend, Daley; Atkinson, Saunders. Substitutes not used: Ehiogu, Spink (gk).
Referee: R Milford (Bristol).