Football: Villa defence looks in championship class

Aston Villa 1 Derby County 0
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The Independent Online
THE SIGHT of Paul Merson plumping up a five-point cushion at the top of the Premiership was not the only image which might have lulled a neutral into thinking they were at Highbury during one of George Graham's championship springs rather than Villa Park in John Gregory's endless summer.

While Merson ensured that an attritional struggle with second-placed Derby ended in a scoreline synonymous with the marble halls, Villa's defensive unit prompted equally valid comparisons with his former club's parsimonious traits.

They have now conceded a solitary goal in 630 minutes' play, accruing 17 points on the strength of just eight goals. That kind of record, as well as rewarding the Villa manager's efforts on the training ground, is the stuff of Graham's dreams.

Unlike his former mentor, Merson dismissed the idea of joining Spurs prior to his pounds 6.75m move to Villa because it would have felt wrong after his long association with Arsenal. He remains close to Steve Bould, while his bond with Tony Adams extends beyond the fact that they are international colleagues.

So when he likened Villa's back three - Gareth Southgate, Ugo Ehiogu and Gareth Barry, a 17-year-old with ice in his veins - to the Gunners' legendary quartet it amounted to more than the customary post-match platitudes.

"Arsenal's defence proved itself year in, year out, and the same guys are still doing the business 10 years on," Merson said. "We've got the potential to achieve the same sort of thing here. In fact, in four or five years I can see Villa dominating English football because there are some fantastic players coming through.

"The main ingredient of any title-winning team is the defence. George was all for grinding out results and when we last finished top we only lost once. It wasn't always entertaining but it doesn't say: `League champions (didn't play entertaining football)'.

"We've now let in one goal in seven games, which is phenomenal, but we've got to keep doing it. I can see it happening because our defence is so hard to score against. I should know - I played against them for Middlesbrough early this season."

Southgate is in imperious form, demonstrating leadership in an undramatic way. The powerful Ehiogu, who came as close to subduing Paulo Wanchope as anyone is likely to, would not be flattered if Glenn Hoddle restored him to the England squad.

Incredibly, Barry could join them in the national set-up before long. Gregory's prodigy highlighted both his pace and poise by stopping Dean Sturridge with the tackle of the match. Sadly, he left the ground on crutches after damaging an Achilles tendon and is almost certainly out of Villa's Uefa Cup match in Norway tomorrow.

Mark Bosnich is also performing at peak level, though it was testament to his guardians that his best saves came from long-range shots. It is in the other goalmouth that Villa are conspicuously short of championship class. Despite Merson's clever link play (he must back-heel the ball more than anyone since Eric Cantona), there is no finisher ruthless enough to call their autobiography Deadly! as the chairman, Doug Ellis, has done.

Still, Gregory has a substantial war chest with which to improve their scoring rate. A week after a certain Leeds manager played down Villa's prospects, the Derby manager, Jim Smith, was asked whether he saw anything to suggest that their conquerors would be contenders. "Yes, they've got pounds 20m to spend," he said, adding impishly: "Plus the proceeds from the book."

It is said that the fixture computer has been kind to Villa. However, it is precisely on successes such as Saturday's that championship challenges are built. In 1994-95, Blackburn lost twice to Manchester United, and at Liverpool on the final day, yet still came first.

Gregory's side have actually met three of the four clubs in closest pursuit. By the time they take on Liverpool, United and Merson's first love in the space of three weeks starting in late November, their place in the race could well be fact rather than a Deadly fantasy.

Goal: Merson (14) 1-0.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry (Grayson, 65); Charles, Hendrie, Taylor, Thompson (Draper, 73), Wright; Merson, Joachim (Collymore, 88). Substitutes not used: Vassell, Oakes (gk).

Derby County (1-2-5-2): Hoult; Carbonari (Eranio, 85); Prior, Laursen; Kozluk (Baiano, 72), Carsley, Bohinen, Powell, Delap; Wanchope, Sturridge. Substitutes not used: Harper, Hunt, Poom (gk).

Referee: S Dunn (Bristol).

Bookings: Villa: Charles. Derby: Laursen.

Attendance: 38,007.

Man of the match: Southgate.