Football Commentary: Villans prove heroes in age of attrition

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The Independent Online
ANOTHER week, another win, the lead stretched to eight points. Some of us who nailed our colours to the mast, and wrote off Norwich City as genuine championship contenders, are suddenly casting round for the pliers.

Some. Not all. The pride of East Anglia have had their odds for the title slashed from 20-1 to 5-1 over their last two games, at which rate they will be odds-on by Christmas, but it is in the new year that the League is won and lost, and doubts remain about Norwich's ability to last the course when the grounds get heavier, undermining their passing game, and injuries bite deep into the smaller squads.

Some of the bigger ones, admittedly, are in poor shape to take advantage. Arsenal remain the bookmakers' favourites, but defeats by Leeds United, Manchester United and now Southampton in quick succession have left them with much - probably too much - to do in the second half of the season. Leeds, beaten 4-1 at home by Nottingham Forest, are in an even worse state, and the early pacemakers, Blackburn Rovers, continue to lose ground, going down 3-2 at Middlesbrough.

Whither, then, the alternative threat to Mike Walker's coltish front-runners? Liverpool, waxing ever stronger as the injuries abate, cannot be discounted, and will be handily placed, on the heels of the pack, if they overcome limp-along Everton in tonight's Merseyside derby. Chelsea, too, are moving up nicely, in fourth, after six wins in seven games.

Manchester United, like the poor, are always with us, and what price Aston Villa? You could have named your own when they lost at home to Norwich nine days ago, but they are up to third, and looking good again, after Saturday's 2-1 victory at Sheffield Wednesday.

It was hard to tell which of the two Atkinsons - both returning to their old club - drew most satisfaction from an impressive, rounded team performance. Dalian scored two crackers, both from the edge of the penalty area, while Ron had the last laugh on the erstwhile supporters who abused his ample girth and immaculate coiffure.

The acrimony which surrounded the managerial Atkinson's departure from Hillsborough to Villa Park last year is still fresh in the mind, on both sides, and, upset by some of the things said, and printed, at the time, he sent word that he would not be giving his customary post-match press conference.

His team, as they say, had done his talking for him. They were not at full strength, lacking Nigel Spink, the influential Ray Houghton and Shaun Teale - who sounds like an Essex hairdresser, but is a cut above most centre-halves - yet they were more convincing winners than the scoreline suggests.

Wednesday, last season's dark horses, had high hopes of improving on their third-place finish, but Trevor Francis has been hit hard by a debilitating crop of injuries, and before Saturday they had been drawing matches - five in succession in the Premier League - they might otherwise have won.

Like Villa, they play a pleasing, passing game, and they contributed in full measure to what was a refreshing break from the siege-gun attrition prevalent elsewhere.

Pass and move was the order of the day - and how they moved. It was end-to-end stuff, played at unremitting pace but, praise be, the ball was kept on the ground, for once. If they play like this every week, not only are Villa capable of winning the League, they would be doing the game a big favour.

Strong and efficient at the back, where Paul McGrath remains second to none, they have a good blend in midfield, with Kevin Richardson to ferret, Garry Parker to pass and Houghton, when fit, to run. Best of all, perhaps, they possess two pacy, penetrative strikers who are scoring with the sort of regularity Manchester United would sell their soul - or at least Mark Hughes - to have.

If Dean Saunders doesn't, Atkinson does. On Saturday it was the turn of the managerial namesake, and he came up with two real belters.

The first, after 19 minutes, saw him shoot powerfully wide of Chris Woods's left hand, Parker and Saunders having done the spadework. The winner, midway through the second half, was in the same venomous vein, thumped into the roof of the net this time after Viv Anderson had failed to cut out a lofted through pass from Neal Cox, who had a highly promising introduction at right-back.

Wednesday, bright and inventive, had regained parity when Chris Waddle cut the ball back from the byline on the right for Mark Bright to sidefoot home at close range.

Waddle's perceptive prompting from midfield and shambling dexterity on the touchline was witnessed by Graham Taylor, who must, or at least should, be reflecting that he discarded one of the country's best footballers much too early. Interestingly, Waddle did much of his most incisive work in the inside-forward role in which John Barnes, among others, would have him play for England.

There was more to admire in his clever, and occasionally mesmeric, use of the ball than the gauche gambolling of Carlton Palmer, or David Hirst's Bull-like charges, and it would be fascinating to see what little San Marino could make of Waddle, Barnes, Gazza and Shearer in the same England team.

Unfortunately, the strong probability - make that inevitability - is that we will never know.

Goals: Atkinson (19) 0-1; Bright (27) 1-1; Atkinson (67) 1-2.

Sheffield Wednesday: Woods; Nilsson, Worthington, Palmer, Anderson, Warhurst, Harkes (Bart-Williams, 78), Waddle, Hirst, Bright, Sheridan (Watson, 81). Substitute not used: Pressman (gk).

Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Cox, McGrath, Richardson, Yorke, Parker, Saunders, Atkinson, Small. Substitutes not used: Breitkreutz, Regis, Oakes (gk).

Referee: R Hart (Darlington).

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