Football: Own goal puts Villa back on top

Charlton Athletic 0 Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Online
HAVING ALLOWED Chelsea their weekend in the sun, Aston Villa felt the glow of League leadership suffuse them again last night after riding their luck in holding Charlton's spirited second-half rally to move three points clear at the top.

For Charlton, The Valley does not have the shadow of death hovering over it quite yet. Following this fifth successive defeat, they are two places above the bottom three but are unlikely to stay there if results do not improve next weekend against Wimbledon and Arsenal. Penetration was again lacking from the principal strikers, and the failure to sign John Aloisi from Portsmouth for a cut-price fee last week may prove costly - especially if his goals help keep Coventry up.

Defensive howlers have also been their undoing recently. Villa benefited from a calamitous own goal in only the third minute by Richard Rufus, who was under no pressure as the ball bounced almost apologetically in off his thigh as Dion Dublin crossed.

Having looked comfortable for most of the first half, the visitors, who had begun with three attackers, were forced to withdraw Stan Collymore, the least effective of them, and send on an extra defender as Charlton stormed back at them without reward.

"They played extremely well and deserved something from the game," said Villa's manager, John Gregory. His opposite number, Alan Curbishley, understandably agreed and also complimented the opposition. "Of all the teams we've played, they were the grittiest," he said. "We lost our way in the last few weeks but we've got a bit back tonight and if we can eradicate those sort of goals, we'll give it a real go."

It was an eventful night, enlivened by a change of referee at half-time and then a male streaker, who was allowed to approach several Villa players before settling on a Christmas kiss for Gareth Southgate.

Southgate was playing unexpectedly in a back four as Villa rested their young defender Gareth Barry and stuck with the side that completed a remarkable comeback to defeat Arsenal in their previous game. Curbishley kept the hard-running Steve Jones alongside Andy Hunt, deciding against restoring last season's leading scorer, Clive Mendonca, until the last 20 minutes.

Charlton understandably took time to recover from Rufus's second own goal of the season, during which period Sasa Ilic had to save low down from Dublin. When they did, John Robinson crossed for Andy Hunt to scramble wide after the ball had clearly gone out for goal-kick.

Villa remained threatening on the break. Ian Taylor's fierce 25-yarder rose too high and in the final minute of the first half, Dublin's controlled shot was headed off the line by the ever-vigilant Mark Kinsella.

The referee, Steve Dunn, pulled out at the interval with a hamstring injury and was replaced by Gary Willard after an appeal for a class one referee to act as a fourth official had finally been answered. "I was pleased but it didn't improve things much," said Curbishley, who felt Southgate had fouled Steve Jones in the penalty area shortly after the goal.

Charlton remained hampered by the lack of power in attack, but got the crowd going with three near misses in as many minutes. Shaun Newton began the home side's best spell by turning inside Alan Wright, space suddenly materialising in the penalty area before he pulled his shot beyond the far post.

From a right-wing corner, Robinson's precise lob was just touched over the bar by Michael Oakes and in the next attack a wild scrum in front of Villa's goal led to Wright emulating Kinsella with a goal-line save. Gregory reacted with a change of personnel and system, bringing on Ricardo Scimeca as a third centre-half. That allowed his side to break with greater width, and Ilic was required to save well from Joachim and Ugo Ehiogu, before Joachim was wrongly given offside as he put Alan Thompson's cross away.

Scimeca had work to do, though, and so did Oakes, who splendidly touched Neil Redfearn's shot on to the bar. From the corner the bar denied Danny Mills, and Charlton had played four and a half hours' football without scoring.

Charlton (4-4-2): Ilic; Mills, Tiler, Rufus, Powell; Newton (Mendonca, 70), Kinsella, Redfearn, Robinson; S Jones, Hunt. Substitutes not used: Brown, K Jones, Konchesky, Royce (gk).

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Oakes; Watson, Ehiogu, Southgate, Wright; Hendrie, Taylor, Thompson, Joachim; Dublin, Collymore (Scimeca, 55). Substitutes not used: Rachel (gk), Charles, Grayson, Vassell.

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol) replaced at half- time by G Willard (Worthing).

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