Villa cannot often have begun a match more pleased with themselves. After taking a five-point lead in the Premiership the previous Saturday, and remaining unbeaten, they had gone over to Norway and beaten Stromsgodset 3-0, with all three goals scored by Stan Collymore, who played only because Paul Merson was ineligible.
All good stuff, except that those who are sceptical enough to look a little more deeply into Villa's locker still worry that the squad do not have sufficient back-up to sustain a challenge when injuries start to bite. Yesterday, though, John Gregory enjoyed the luxury of including both Collymore and Merson at the expense of Julian Joachim.
Merson's persistent probing alongside and just behind Collymore caused Coventry to respect them both and concentrate so much on trying to deny them possession that their own opportunities to build from the back were limited.
Lee Hendrie and Alan Thompson were quick to stifle any breaks that did occur. So Dion Dublin spent much of the first half waiting in the hope that Coventry's new ex-Aston Villa signing, Stephen Froggatt, could offer him something from the left side, or that he himself could escape the attentive defensive work of Gareth Southgate and Gareth Barry.
Yet again Coventry sorely missed the pace of Darren Huckerby, who may not be the most thoughtful player but can penetrate defences through simple speed. But it was as a defensive unit that they suffered the consequences of failing to keep up with Villa's quicker wits in attack as, in the 29th minute, Merson stretched them. He released Gary Charles on the right; Charles centred, Roland Nilsson made an unsatisfactory clearance and Ian Taylor hammered a blistering goal.
To their credit, Coventry attempted to recover with a passing game that deserved better than to see them fall two behind only 10 minutes later. Hendrie released Merson wide, and the latter ignored the justified "offside" shrieks. The linesman, who Strachan said afterwards admitted to the players that he made a mistake, saw nothing wrong. Merson's ball across the goal found Taylor again dangerously lurking in the penalty area and it took only a side-foot to beat Magnus Hedman.
Had Mark Bosnich not, wonderfully, dived low to pummel away a fierce shot from Froggat, Coventry might have started the second half more optimistically, but this was their season in a nutshell - plenty of willing and not unattractive football without much to show.
By comparison, Villa's tactical approach was more practical, hardly breathtaking but difficult to oppose. Nevertheless, they had to be thankful to Bosnich who, early in the second half, again twisted in the air and beat away a goal-bound shot from George Boateng.
Less spectacularly but of equal importance, Bosnich later hurled himself at the feet of Noel Whelan who, earlier in the game, had tested him with a shot that had the home crowd on their feet in anticipation.
If persistence automatically brought rewards, Coventry would have pulled themselves back into contention after an hour of worthy trying. But Bosnich remained a defiant barrier and even when he failed to reach a searing cross-shot from Nilsson, luck remained a distant prize. The ball skidded a shade beyond the far post.
The substitution of Trond Egil Soltvedt for Barry Quinn changed the growing notion that Coventry's hill was too steep to scale. In the 70th minute, Froggatt's ball into the Villa penalty area brought touches from Whelan and Dublin before Soltvedt drilled it under the crossbar.
Admittedly, Joachim, Merson's substitute, managed to turn an open goal into a closed target over which the ball flew high, but in the end Villa were relieved to finish the day having again revealed more tenacity and teamwork than thrilling talent.Reuse content