Football: Merson makes Villa tick

Aston Villa 1 Dublin 5 Middlesbrough 0 Half-time: 1-0 Attendance: 28,728
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The Independent Online
ASTON VILLA'S motto, "prepared", is a simple one. Not so their task this season - to make sure that history does not repeat itself.

After leading the Premiership for much of the first half of last season, Villa fell away to finish sixth. But having joined Manchester United at the top of the table after an unconvincing win over injury-hit Middlesbrough, the management reckon they really are the Boy Scouts of the Premiership.

With the signings of David James, George Boateng and Najwan Ghrayib and the emergence of Mark Delaney, Villa believe they are better equipped to deal with life in the fast lane.

"We didn't have the strength in the squad that we have this year," the first-team coach, Steve Harrison, said. "We like to play a high-tempo game, we work very hard during matches and in order to sustain that right through until May, you need bodies. The resolution has always been there but we ran out of bodies last season."

Boateng and the Israeli Ghrayib were on the bench as Villa fielded an unchanged side, who ground out an uncompromising result. Paul Merson, having made his first appearance of the season in the midweek win at Watford, retained his place to face his former club at the expense of Alan Thompson.

With Christian Ziege and Keith O'Neill joining a Boro casualty list already containing Colin Cooper, Paul Gascoigne, Gianluca Festa and Dean Gordon, the visitors were always going to be up against it.

Villa took a fifth-minute lead with a goal of stunning simplicity. Merson worked a sublime one-two with Alan Wright down the left and his pass, with the outside of his right foot, gave the wing-back ample time to measure his cross. Dublin rose at the near post to head the ball into the far corner for his fourth goal of the season.

With Merson, Lee Hendrie and Ian Taylor running midfield, Townsend, Paul Ince and Robbie Mustoe struggled to take Boro forward until Delaney's slip allowed Ince to cross for Brian Deane to put in a firm header. David James could not hold it, but the ball was cleared for a corner.

As the half wore on, Boro came more into the game and seven minutes before the interval Ince nearly equalised. James's handling failed him again when under pressure to hold Ince's miscued shot, and the England reject had another go only for Colin Calderwood to clear his goal-bound drive.

Villa's defence looked decidedly dodgy, but seconds before the break, Wright missed a golden opportunity to put his side further ahead. Hendrie's cross found him unmarked on the six-yard box but he let Mark Schwarzer gather the ball.

The first 10 minutes of the second half saw Villa lay siege to the Boro goal. Schwarzer palmed away Julian Joachim's shot, and the striker then nipped in to push Hendrie's cross just past the post.

Merson may have been the target of some Boro boos but he did not allow it to affect his game. Merson impressed with his industry and link-up play and in the 68th minute almost crowned an excellent all-round performance with a goal. Despite being forced wide in the area, he produced a fine right-foot drive, which Schwarzer tipped over.