Football Commentary: Villa are united in defiance

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The Independent Online
SPAGHETTI junction has claimed a new victim, but if Dean Saunders drives like Mark Thatcher, the resurgent Welshman has no trouble following the direct route to goal, and is again making bolognese of the best defences around.

The renaissance of the record- breaking striker - no stranger to losing his way after that depressing sojourn at Liverpool - is one of the stories of the season. Having suffered more than most from the disintegration of the Anfield empire, Saunders's relief at his renewed prosperity with Aston Villa is such that he can laugh off the unnecessary 30-mile detour he has been taking to the training ground each day.

Seven goals in his last 10 games and a total of 16 in 29 appearances since his restorative move to the Midlands had an appreciative Ron Atkinson searching for comparisons. After careful deliberation, he came up with Tony Brown of West Bromwich Albion, who was the leading scorer in the old First Division in 1971, and came third in the list under Atkinson's guidance, eight years later.

'Saunders is the best goalscorer I've worked with since,' the Villa manager said. Praise indeed from a man who has bought, and sold, some of the best. Or at least some of the most expensive.

Why so keen on Dean? The costliest flop in Liverpool's history had further repaired his reputation with the goal of the season. One so good Mick McGiven blamed it twice.

McGiven's Ipswich had lost 2-0, but he was in no doubt where the decisive damage was done. 'The second goal was a brilliant goal. A brilliant goal,' he said. 'Conceding one like that, just two minutes before half-time, killed us off.'

Ipswich were on the road to ruin before that, but it was fair comment. They were left slack-jawed in wonder, beyond recovery, by the precision, dexterity and sheer cheek of the lofty lob with which Saunders embarrassed Clive Baker from a little over 30 yards.

Hoisted high in the air to come down just under the crossbar, it was an up and under of which Phil Bennett or Jonathan Davies would have been proud.

'It wasn't a fluke - no arguments,' Atkinson insisted. 'It's something he has been saying he could do. A super goal, it embellished a good team performance.'

McGiven was not about to argue. 'He looked up at the keeper and took aim before he did it, so it wasn't luck. It was top-quality finishing from a top-quality player. Villa are a very good side. They are very positive, with good attacking players and a lot of experience. And just think: they've still got Dalian Atkinson to come back.'

Ipswich, in contrast, are negative by design, with only one attacking player (Chris Kiwomya) of any consequence, and precious little experience at the highest level.

By defending in depth, with resolution and discipline, they have acquired a reputation as the hardest team to beat, but three defeats in their last five League games have exploded that myth - two of the losses coming against Oldham and Sheffield United, from the bottom three.

For a top-five side they are not that easy to lose to, having won only as many matches as Arsenal, who are 11th. Draws (12 in 27 games) are their forte, which is no real surprise, given a strategy founded on belt-and-braces defence.

On Saturday they omitted Frank Yallop, scorer of excellent goals in their two previous League matches, and sought to nullify Villa's pacy, potent attack with a five- man defence. The safety-first approach had worked when the two sides met in the Coca-Cola Cup, and Ipswich nicked a 1-0 win, but forewarned was forearmed, and Villa were ready for the East Anglian stranglers this time.

Atkinson not only deployed a winger, Steve Froggatt, to stretch them, he also had his full-backs, Earl Barrett and Steve Staunton, rampaging down the sides. Extra man or not, the Ipswich defence was overwhelmed by sheer weight of numbers, and might easily have shipped five or six.

On their day, and they are becoming more frequent, Villa look fully capable of lasting the distance and testing Manchester United's nerve the way Leeds did last season. They are a team with few flaws - the best pair of centre-halves in the country, full- backs as good as any, a nicely balanced midfield and Saunders to supply the finish.

The one obvious shortcoming will be remedied when Atkinson returns to share Saunders's striking burden. Dwight Yorke headed a beauty on Saturday, from Staunton's inviting cross, but four goals in 26 appearances is not enough from last season's leading scorer.

Atkinson, out for the last month with groin trouble, is needed to add to his 13 in 24, but when he will be back is anybody's guess. His managerial namesake has all but given up on him, hinting at hypochondria.

'I don't know whether he'll play tomorrow, or if he'll ever play again. I threw a ball at him today and he shouted 'ouch' before he touched it, yet if you saw him in training you'd think he'd win the Olympic sprint. He'll probably get the goal of the month again - in June.'

March would be better. Villa's programme then, when they play Blackburn, Manchester United, Sheffield Wednesday and Norwich, could be the making, or the breaking, of them.

For the time being United have the edge, courtesy of their superior goal difference, and big- hearted Ron was the first to appreciate the timing of his old club's return to the top, on the 35th anniversary of Munich.

Sentiment and sympathy will be forgotten, though, when United come calling at Villa Park on 14 March. Definitely one for the diary, that.

Goals: Yorke (33) 1-0; Saunders (43) 2-0.

Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker, Saunders, Yorke (Beinlich, 86), Froggatt (Cox, 80). Substitute not used: Oakes (gk).

Ipswich Town: Baker; Whelan, Thompson, Stockwell, Wark, Linighan (Johnson 45), Williams, Guentchev, Whitton, Dozzell, Kiwomya. Substitutes not used: Yallop, Forrest (gk).

Referee: P Durkin (Portland).

(Photograph omitted)