Football: Ehiogu late show raises Villa billing

Relief for Gregory as his contenders resume leadership ahead of tonight's title confrontation: Aston Villa 2 Sheffield Wednesday 1
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The Independent Online
ASTON VILLA returned to the top of the Premiership, though perhaps only until Chelsea meet Manchester United tonight, when a late goal by Ugo Ehiogu broke the resistance of a Sheffield Wednesday side who played for 70 minutes with 10 men following the dismissal of Dejan Stefanovic.

Wednesday, who have specialised in frustrating championship contenders, were within five minutes of adding a point at Villa Park to the one they took from Stamford Bridge and home wins over United and Arsenal when Ehiogu's header rewarded mounting pressure by John Gregory's team.

It was quite an afternoon for central defenders. Apart from Stefanovic's exit for a second bookable offence and Des Walker's first caution for two and a half years, Gareth Southgate fired Villa in front with his first goal in a similar period. Benito Carbone equalised immediately, but Wednesday's vulnerability at set-pieces ultimately ensured a scoreline which reflected the balance of play.

Gregory, while conceding that Villa were not at their best, praised their ability to "grind out" results. The Villa manager felt that Stefanovic's punishment had been "very harsh", a view expressed more forcibly by Danny Wilson. "The first yellow card was diabolical," the Wednesday manager said. "The referee will be embarrassed when he sees it again."

Considering they had finished a draining match at Blackburn - playing a man short for 35 minutes - the vigour with which Villa stuck at their task spoke volumes for their fitness and commitment.

In their pre-Christmas fixture, at Charlton, Villa's goal arrived after three minutes. This time, only seven minutes had passed before Stefanovic was judged to have fouled Julian Joachim and was cautioned. Lee Hendrie's free-kick found Pavel Srnicek punching weakly under pressure, allowing Southgate to volley home from 12 yards.

The Villa captain had not scored since striking the winner against Blackburn on the night of Kenny Dalglish's departure in August 1996. Yet if Southgate hoped an early goal might suffice once more, a combination of Villa's slapdash defending and Carbone's virtuosity swiftly disabused them of such notions.

The Italian, suspended when Wednesday lost to Leicester on Boxing Day, initially set up a shooting chance for Andy Booth but Gareth Barry dispossessed him at the expense of a corner. When Andy Hinchcliffe's flag-kick was cleared back to him, he crossed again for Booth to outjump Dublin and give Carbone the opportunity to demonstrate the art of the overhead kick.

Villa were pressing forward in numbers when Stefanovic, perhaps caught out by Joachim's acceleration, again sent him tumbling. The Villa striker tried to stay on his feet, but like the Yugoslav, he did not have a leg to stand on.

Wednesday's strategy was already one of counter-attack. Switching to four at the back and boldly leaving two up front, they twice scared Villa before the interval. First, Petter Rudi's cross was volleyed narrowly wide by Niclas Alexandersson; then Carbone chipped over Michael Oakes only to see the ball land on the roof of the net.

Villa's exasperation intensified when Dublin, meeting Alan Wright's cross five yards out, saw his first shot thud into Hinchcliffe and his follow- up blocked by Srnicek in first-half stoppage time.

Eight minutes in the second half Gregory sent on Stan Collymore and Mark Draper, a ploy that had transformed Villa's previous home game, against Arsenal, but Wednesday kept possession and covered assiduously to deny them space.

On the hour, Ehiogu's towering header from a corner was wrongly disallowed by Mr Barber, and with 16 minutes left, Hinchcliffe received the benefit of substantial doubt when he appeared to take Joachim's legs in the penalty area.

In the 82nd minute, moments after Steve Watson had headed wide, Joachim's eventful day continued when his 20-yard drive rebounded of the far post. Gregory admitted later he was resigned to drawing the game at that stage. However, when Ehiogu met Wright's corner with a header that was a carbon copy of his earlier effort, Wednesday had exhausted their supply of good fortune.

Goals: Southgate (7) 1-0; Carbone (8) 1-1; Ehiogu (85) 2-1.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Watson, Taylor (Draper, 53), Hendrie, Scimeca (Collymore, 53), Wright; Joachim, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Charles, Grayson, Rachel (gk).

Sheffield Wednesday (3-5-2): Srnicek; Thome, Walker, Stefanovic; Alexandersson (Briscoe, 89), Jonk, Atherton, Rudi (Humphreys, 89), Hinchcliffe; Booth, Carbone. Substitutes not used: Magilton, Sonner, Pressman (gk).

Referee: G Barber (Pyrford, Surrey).

Sending-off: Sheffield Wednesday: Stefanovic. Bookings: Sheffield Wednesday: Stefanovic, Rudi, Walker, Hinchcliffe.

Man of the match: Hendrie

Attendance: 39,217.

Football, pages 17-19