Football: Daley uses his head to lift Villa

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The Independent Online
Arsenal. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .0

Aston Villa. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

FOUR games left, one point in it. Still too close to call. Anyone fearing that Villa would stay on the canvas after Saturday's piledriver on the bell must have been impressed by their recovery at Highbury yesterday, when sheer hard work was rewarded with a restorative away win.

Tony Daley goals have become something of a rarity - headed ones even more so - but one nod of football's most distinctive haircut kept the championship wide open.

The odds still favour Manchester United, but it will probably go right to the wire, in which event no one would envy the leaders their last match, away to Wimbledon.

Shaken by the demoralising circumstances in which they lost pole position at the weekend, Villa were second best for the most part against an Arsenal team in no way distracted by Sunday's Coca-Cola Cup final.

Not for the first time Villa had good reason to be grateful for Ron Atkinson's knowledge and nous. Anticipating that the Gunners would be at full bore, Atkinson favoured industry over guile in his selection.

It was no game for strollers, so Garry Parker was out and Earl Barrett pushed forward to forage for possession in midfield. Good thinking. Barrett's pace and persistence was instrumental in keeping Villa afloat when Arsenal's power game threatened to torpedo their title challenge.

Daley proved to be another shrewd choice. Given only his fifth start of the season, England's forgotten winger responded with his first goal for 12 months - his first with his head for five years.

'I think he was a bit surprised to be in the team,' Atkinson said. Why was he? 'It's no secret that we haven't been scoring from the forward positions.' True. Dean Saunders has now played 11 games without a goal, and Daley's was only the fifth Villa have scored in their past seven matches.

For a long time Arsenal seemed more likely to relieve the tedium of a scrappy stalemate littered with offsides. Ian Wright saw more of the flag than most, and another booking, for throwing the ball down in disgust, condemns the combustible striker to another suspension. Fortunately for the cup finalists, Wright timed the ban better than his runs, and misses only the game at Everton on 1 May.

Villa spent the first hour on the back foot, heavily reliant on the excellence of their central defenders, but theirs was the best chance, and worst miss, of an untidy first half.

Dalian Atkinson, set up by Saunders, should have scored either with his initial header, which was saved, or with a follow-up shot, which was poorly directed and easily blocked.

Arsenal would have profited from their reprieve but for the peerless Paul McGrath's goal-line clearance from Kevin Campbell. Villa were also indebted to the referee, who awarded a free-kick for obstruction when Shaun Teale balked Wright 15 yards from goal. It looked a good decision, but many would have opted for a penalty.

Atkinson's relief at the ruling blossomed into full-blown celebration after 69 minutes, when Barrett's clever back-heel enabled Ray Houghton to cross and Daley to score from five yards with a firm, downward header.

The game finished with Saunders shooting over with the goal at his mercy. Their principal striker still needs to 'turn the corner', as Atkinson puts it, but at least Villa are still on the road.

Arsenal: Seaman; Dixon, Winterburn, Selley, Keown, Adams, Morrow, Wright (Linighan, 83), Smith, Merson, Campbell (Parlour, 69). Substitute not used: Miller (gk).

Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Cox, Saunders, Atkinson, Daley (Small, 75). Substitutes not used: Yorke, Spink (gk).

Referee: G Ashby (Worcester).

(Photograph omitted)