Football: O'Neill's staying power inspires

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa 1

Ehiogu 68

Leicester City 1

Cottee 36

Attendance: 39,241

ASTON VILLA, so practical and assured in the performances that have taken them to the head of the championship yesterday again discovered why Leicester City prize their manager, Martin O'Neill, whose decision to stay at Filbert Street will, he said quizzically, "stop this whole business rearing its ugly head again in the next one month or two".

If, in spite of the weather, both teams had come out with silly grins on their faces, who would have blamed them? Leicester had retained their popular manager and Villa had kept up their Uefa Cup challenge with an away win in Spain and continuing to show that a very English team, playing with a continental touch, can compete with the expensively imported variety.

Yesterday, though, they had difficulty with the inexpensive Leicester. For a while the maturing link of Paul Merson and Stan Collymore, which had been one of the positive causes of Villa's sequence of good results, seemed about to blossom. It also threatened Leicester with the possibility of finding themselves a goal down within two minutes as Merson's threaded pass into Collymore's stride would have led to a goal had not Kasey Keller quickly seen the danger. Even so Collymore's appetite for the game these days is refreshing.

Merson's service was to decline so badly that he was later substituted and left the field angrily. So Lee Hendrie had to prompt and prod while Alan Thompson always looked to reinforce the attack, using midfield space intelligently. But Leicester countered typically. Steve Guppy was alive to the opportunities and the game got brighter as the rain clouds lifted.

After half an hour Leicester began to explain why their record against Villa (no defeats in six Premiership meetings) was so good, not least through the enthusiasm and ferocity of their interceptions. Villa were forced into retreat and eventually counted the cost for failing to string passes together.

Guppy's persistent hard work down the left side and consistently accurate centres finally won Leicester a 36th- minute lead. His deep cross gave Theo Zagorakis possession beyond the far post. He returned the ball across the face of goal and Tony Cottee met it firmly. Villa had the rare experience of going behind.

One of the keys to Leicester's achievement after their early confusion was the subduing of Merson. The moving of Ullathorne into a central defensive role, with Guppy operating from a deeper than usual base, worked well, even to the extent of depriving Collymore of the possession he had enjoyed in the first half an hour.

O'Neill's reception by the travelling fans was rather more enthusiastic at the start of the second half than it had been at the beginning of the game when Gregory upstaged him by receiving the Manager of the Month award. The applause was fully deserved since Leicester's tenacious performance was typical of O'Neill. But the challenge of retaining the lead was as tough as it comes. Collymore snatched two shots and Gareth Southgate missed an opening almost as wide as the goal itself.

So Julian Joachim was sent on after the hour to give Villa support and speed. Certainly his pace immediately had Leicester on the back foot. Yet it was a simple set-piece that caught them static. Hendrie's corner dropped directly into the line of Ugo Ehiogu's move into the Leicester defence, and his header had the power to leave Keller spectating. Neither Merson nor Emile Heskey at either end had an ounce of luck with their opportunities.

Having been forced into lateral movement the England international had become ineffective and was replaced by Steve Watson. Meanwhile, Southgate compensated for his early miss with several important defensive tackles that exuded class. Equally, Lennon, Frank Sinclair and especially the nimble and accurate-tackling Ullathorne kept close control over Collymore and Thompson.

There was no argument against the ultimate result of an engrossing game but in the longer term the greater potential must belong to Villa while the O'Neill inspired tenacity of Leicester will surely keep them safe. Whether, despite his new commitment to the club, O'Neill will still be inspiring them to this sort of performance in a year's time is open to question.