Football: Language of football is garbled

Aston Villa 3 Crystal Palace 1
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The Independent Online
By Paul Newman

Aston Villa 3 Crystal Palace 1

It must have been just like that television advert for KitKat: a football manager trying in vain to get his message across to his foreign players by using hand gestures, facial expressions and, in the end, an interpreter.

The only difference in the Crystal Palace dressing-room at Villa Park on Saturday was that the man doing the team talk was the overseas import. Attilio Lombardo, Palace's new player-manager, delivered his pre-match team talk in his best Italian while an assistant translated.

As Lombardo admitted afterwards, maybe something was lost in translation. Fifty-six seconds into the game Villa's Fernando Nelson crossed for the unmarked Ian Taylor to head home from eight yards. Within 35 minutes Palace were three goals down and on their way to a club record eighth successive League defeat, which also equals the worst run in Premiership history.

"The players failed to put into practice what I had told them," Lombardo said - via the obligatory interpreter - after the match. "Maybe it was the language problem. I was a bit disappointed and I thought that my message hadn't got across to them."

Lombardo, however, was surely being kind to his shell-shocked players. Palace's first half defending was dreadful in anybody's language, as it has been since the turn of the year. Having begun the season so promisingly and defended with such assurance, their defence is now a shambles.

Neil Emblen, a pounds 2m purchase from Wolves, looked ill at ease in the centre of the back five, while Valerien Ismael, signed from Strasbourg for a club record fee of pounds 2.8m, once again made elementary mistakes. When he gave away the second goal by bringing down Julian Joachim the Frenchman's play was naive in the extreme as he let his opponent get goalside of him.

Bad habits can become infectious and the normally reliable Marc Edworthy committed a similar mistake when he gave Savo Milosevic too much room for Villa's third.

Lombardo may well make a name for himself as a coach one day, but in Palace's current situation it seems extraordinary that Mark Goldberg, the prospective owner who appears to be pulling all the Selhurst strings these days, can believe that a player with strictly limited English and no coaching experience can do better than the experienced and respected Steve Coppell, who has been moved upstairs.

Palace may have slid alarmingly under Coppell, but he had confirmed his ability in the first third of the season and had been having to cope with a lengthy injury list and the unsettling backdrop of Goldberg's proposed take-over. There are also serious question marks over how much influence Coppell had on transfer policy.

Just about the only ray of sunlight in Palace's day was the stunning consolation goal scored by their recent pounds 1m recruit from Carlisle, Matt Jansen, who jinked through the Villa defence before crashing a left-foot shot into the corner of the net from 25 yards.

By that stage Villa, who had been in total control in the first half, had taken their foot off the accelerator, aware that they face the most important match of their season so far when they entertain Atletico Madrid in the second leg of their Uefa Cup quarter-final tomorrow night.

Milosevic, who showed some exquisite touches, will have helped his claim for a place with his two goals, but John Gregory, the Villa manager, was giving few clues as to their line-up. Dwight Yorke and Stan Collymore should be available again and Gregory hinted that he might leave a big name or two on the bench.

"Sometimes you need to bring your best player on with 30 minutes to go because he can lift the crowd and the team," Gregory said. "The big Continental clubs always have good players on the bench."

Tomorrow will be Villa's sixth game in 18 days and Gregory admitted that his team looked jaded. "There were a lot of heavy legs in the second half and mentally we looked a bit drained," he said. "But three points was the only thing that mattered today."

Goals: Taylor (1) 1-0; Milosevic (14 pen) 2-0; Milosevic (35) 3-0; Jansen (62) 3-1.

Aston Villa (5-3-2): Bosnich; Nelson (Charles, 72), Ehiogu, Southgate, Staunton, Wright; Taylor, Draper (Grayson, 53), Hendrie; Milosevic, Joachim. Substitutes not used: Collins, Byfield, Oakes (gk).

Crystal Palace (5-3-2): Miller; Smith, Ismael, Emblen (Rodger, 45), Edworthy, Gordon; Bent (Lombardo, 62), Brolin, Fullarton; Dyer, Shipperley (Jansen, 56). Substitutes not used: Linighan, Nash (gk).

Bookings: Villa: Milosevic, Staunton. Palace: Ismael.

Referee: G P Barber (Pyrford).

Man of the match: Milosevic.

Attendance: 33,781