Football: Villa let City off the hook

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Manchester City. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

Aston Villa. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

THIS vigorously contested draw at Maine Road, which started quietly before blossoming into a fine, free-flowing affair, was a classic game of two halves, two Garrys and two points thrown away by Villa, who allowed a revitalised City back into the proceedings in the second half.

Villa, favourites for the championship, moved within four points of Norwich City, the Premier League leaders who play Ipswich tomorrow, but they should have drawn even closer by securing maximum points in the first half, when all they had to show for their nimble attacking was Garry Parker's well-struck 37th minute goal.

'We got ourselves into a winning position,' Ron Atkinson, the Villa manager said, 'but we did not go on and win and I'm very disappointed.'

City's resurgence was largely due to the replacement of Peter Reid by Mike Sheron just before the hour mark, the substitute immediately helping manufacture Garry Flitcroft's thoroughly deserved equaliser.

City, who had lost three on the spin, were well worth their points - for their spirited second half display and an understandable feeling of anger at Villa's goal in the 37th minute. Dalian Atkinson, the Villa striker, appeared at least five yards offside when Ray Houghton received the ball on the right. City's defenders stood still, waiting in vain for the linesman's flag to flutter upwards.

The referee, Ray Bigger, presumably believing that Atkinson, who had been jogging back to the halfway line was not interfering with play, waved play on. Houghton's cross from the right, directed towards Atkinson who had quickly retraced his steps into the box, was headed clear by Andy Hill but only to Parker, nicely stationed 15 yards out. The England B international, a key force behind Villa's prominence this year, jumped a foot off the ground and caught the ball perfectly to send a dipping volley past Tony Coton.

City seemed justified in their protests, but Mr Bigger was having none of it and booked Terry Phelan for lecturing a linesman. The home fans, packed to the rafters in the Kippax Stand, displayed their disappointment, applauding ironically whenever subsequent offside decisions went their way.

'It's obviously another talking point with referees,' Ron Atkinson said. 'One of our players was in an offside position. The referee is in a cleft-stick situation but unfortunately it overshadowed the real quality of the goal.'

Reid, Atkinson's City counterpart, said, 'There are a few interpretations of the offside law and we got caught out by one of them. My players are very upset.'

City, after airing their grievances, replied in the best fashion - by taking the game to Villa. 'Their goal gave us the kick up the backside that we needed,' Steve McMahon said. The City midfielder outplayed by Parker in the first half, dominated the second half, showing his teammates the way to goal with two low but unsuccessful drives.

The key to City's points was the introduction of Sheron in the 58th minute. With his first touch, Sheron sent Ian Brightwell away down the right. The full-back crossed high and long towards the far post, where the unmarked Flitcroft, timing his run well, headed past Nigel Spink to double his tally this season.

'No one came with me,' the 20- year-old midfielder said. 'I just tried to place the header across the goal and it went in low past two of their players. I'm well chuffed.'

The last half-hour provided excellent entertainment for the 23,525 crowd, the game swaying from end to end with both sides having chances to seal it. Reid's men had the better glimpses of goal, Niall Quinn (twice) and Sheron going close.

Despite his disappointment, Atkinson could take consolation from the fact Manchester United also drew, and there is no one in- form side dominating the league. 'There are plenty of teams in with a shout for the title,' he said. 'But I don't know who they are.'

Manchester City: T Coton; I Brightwell, T Phelan, S McMahon, A Hill, D White, P Reid (M Sheron, 58 min), N Quinn, G Flitcroft, R Holden. Subs not used: F Simpson, M Margetson (gk). Player-Manager: P Reid.

Aston Villa: N Spink; E Barrett, S Staunton, S Teale, P McGrath, K Richardson, R Houghton, G Parker, D Saunders, D Atkinson (M Breitkreutz, 60 min), D Yorke. Subs not used: N Cox, M Bosnich (gk). Manager: R Atkinson.

Referee: R Bigger (Croydon).

Goals: Parker (0-1, 35 min), Flitcroft (1-1, 58 min).