Football: Lack of self-belief holding Villa back

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa 0 West Ham United 0

Brian Little rounded on the Eurosceptics after a dismal showing by Villa but had to concede his team did not look convincing candidates for a Uefa Cup place. They are not playing well and Little cannot explain why.

"There is a fair amount of endeavour but too many of the players we look towards to affect a game are performing below par," he said. "There is no real reason. It is just a fact."

No reason, perhaps, other than the possibility that Villa do not really believe in themselves. Little thinks he has a top-six team but does not see them threatening yet to become a top-three team. When he says so, as he did on Saturday, he is merely being honest but it is honesty of a type that can sometimes discourage ambition.

Neither can it help when the likelihood of wholesale changes is common gossip. Little, who would willingly have off-loaded Savo Milosevic to Perugia last autumn, has already said he will wash his hands of Sasa Curcic and is ready to part also with Tommy Johnson, whose proposed return to Derby collapsed not because of any objection from Little. Others, such as the 33-year-old Irish international, Andy Townsend, and the rarely used Julian Joachim, must wonder what sort of shelf life they can anticipate.

Little plays down talk of a spending spree funded by Stock Market gains, preferring to talk up the merits of his current squad. On Saturday, however, they played like a team in need of freshening up.

With Milosevic injured, they had few visible ideas other than to hit long passes for Joachim and Dwight Yorke to chase. Mark Draper, ostensibly the creative member of Villa's midfield trio, produced little that was imaginative.

Villa's best players were their central defenders, Ugo Ehiogu, Gareth Southgate and the towering 19-year-old, David Hughes, who looked surprisingly comfortable in his first full home match, standing in for the injured Steve Staunton. It was just as well, given the problems caused by Paul Kitson and John Hartson, West Ham's forward pair.

After spending almost pounds 5.5m to recruit the duo, the West Ham manager, Harry Redknapp, is expecting to avoid relegation on the back of their goals. There were none on Saturday but Redknapp must have been pleased that the two best chances of the match involved both new men.

Kitson, a good player wasted at Newcastle, combined with Stan Lazaridis to set up Hartson 10 minutes before half-time and worked a one-two with the former Arsenal man to create a shooting chance 10 minutes into the second period. Each time, the alertness of goalkeeper Mark Bosnich kept the scoresheet blank.

"This isn't an easy place to come and get a result," Redknapp said, "so to come away with a draw is satisfactory. But we had the best chances of the match."

The price for missing them was two points from a game in which there were other costs, too. Frank Lampard Jnr, 18-year-old son of Redknapp's right-hand man, was carried off with a broken leg and four yellow cards included one for Julian Dicks that will cause the West Ham captain to miss next month's critical home match against Middlesbrough.

Aston Villa (5-3-2): Bosnich; Nelson, Ehiogu, Southgate, Hughes, Wright; Taylor, Draper (Hendrie, 71), Townsend; Joachim (Johnson, 75), Yorke. Substitutes not used: Davis, Murray, Oakes (gk).

West Ham United (4-4-2): Miklosko; Breacker, Potts, Bilic, Dicks; Moncur, Lampard (Ferdinand, 31), Bishop, Lazaridis; Hartson, Kitson. Substitutes not used: Porfirio, Dowie, Rieper, Sealey (gk).

Referee: D Elleray (Harrow).

Bookings: West Ham: Lazaridis, Lampard, Dicks, Moncur.

Man of the match: Southgate.

Attendance: 35,992.

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