Football: Helping hand rescues Villa

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Aston Villa. . . . .3

Manchester City. . .1

JUST when they needed him most, Aston Villa found their own Dave Beasant yesterday in the form of Keith Curle. With the scores tied at 1-1 and only 22 minutes remaining, Manchester City's captain inexplicably handled to gift Villa a penalty which transformed the match - and possibly the Premier League title race to boot.

The dark mutterings emanating from the direction of Old Trafford were almost audible as Garry Parker stepped up to score from the spot. Villa, who had looked flat and forlorn until Dean Saunders cancelled out Niall Quinn's first-half goal soon after the interval, added a third in the final minute through Ray Houghton.

Before Curle's aberration, which may yet become Manchester's equivalent of the infamous 'Hand of God' incident, it appeared as though the championship trophy might even be adorned by red and white ribbons by the end of Wednesday night. Instead, Villa will head for Blackburn with hope renewed, while United meet Crystal Palace in the first of two potentially hazardous trips to Selhurst Park.

United supporters who could not bear to watch the match on television can be assured that City were indeed anything but supine. They might have fallen behind in the 12th minute when Saunders raced on to Kevin Richardson's pass, shook off Curle and shot firmly, only for Tony Coton to make a fine save.

For the rest of the first half, however, City were the more fluid side and they deservedly took a 34th-minute lead. Fitzroy Simpson robbed Houghton before releasing a through ball which gave Terry Phelan the opportunity to out-sprint Neil Cox. His first-time centre caught Mark Bosnich in two minds, the keeper starting to come before retreating and being stranded in no man's land as Quinn rose unmarked to head his 11th goal of the season.

Saunders admitted afterwards that Atkinson had 'crucified' his team during the interval, and Villa duly equalised in the 47th minute. Houghton sent Tony Daley scampering away on the left, the winger's cross clipping Ray Ranson's head before looping up over Coton. Saunders headed home from almost beneath the bar to end a run of 1,095 minutes without a goal for his club.

Saunders was also involved in the decisive goal 11 minutes later, Curle placing a panicky palm on the Welshman's cross as Dalian Atkinson climbed behind him. Peter Reid, City's player-manager and outstanding performer on the day, later suggested that his pounds 2.5m defender felt he had been pushed by the Villa striker. But there were no protests as Parker's nervous penalty squeezed past Coton.

Villa were galvanised, Curle mortified. In an attempt to redeem himself, he moved to centre-forward and fashioned an 83rd-minute opening from which Garry Flitcroft fired over. Simpson then forced Bosnich into a stunning finger-tip save but, with the seconds ticking by, Villa struck again. For once City's offside trap failed them, Houghton taking Steve Staunton's pass to the edge of the area before deftly lobbing Coton.

Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Cox, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker (Small, 77), Saunders, Atkinson, Daley. Substitutes not used: Yorke, Spink (gk).

Manchester City: Coton; Ranson, Phelan, Reid, Curle, Vonk, White, Simpson, Quinn, Flitcroft, Holden (D Brightwell, 76). Substitutes not used: Ingebrigtsen, Margetson (gk).

Referee: P Don (Hanworth Park, Middlesex).