Football: Villa lifted by Atkinson brace

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The Independent Online
Sheffield Wednesday. . .1

Aston Villa. . . . . . .2

IT WAS appropriate that an absorbing game of high endeavour and open football between two of England's most entertaining sides should be settled in Villa's favour with a brace of superbly struck goals by the former Wednesday striker Dalian Atkinson.

Expectations were high, and they were not disappointed. Villa have come good this season and Wednesday, with five consecutive league draws behind them, are a lot better than their modest placing suggests, as their midweek Coca-Cola Cup demolition of Queen's Park Rangers demonstrated.

This match enjoyed the in-form strike partnerships of Atkinson and Dean Saunders and Wednesday's David Hirst and Mark Bright. There was also the added spice of the return of the former Wednesday manager Ron Atkinson to Hillsborough.

But it was his namesake, Dalian, who stole the show with powerful drives in each half. He has now scored 10 in 14 games, but Villa's success owed almost as much to the speed, mobility and determination of his sidekick, Saunders. Bright provided the filling in the sandwich, his ninth goal for the Owls this season, but Wednesday's inability to convert enough of their chances was again their downfall.

They were unchanged from the side that overwhelmed QPR and began where they left off, swarming forward with urgency and incisiveness. Chris Waddle's searching passes unhinged the Villa back four, letting John Harkes and Hirst make a series of threatening runs into the box. Villa's Australian goalkeeper, Mark Bosnich, deputising for the injured Nigel Spink, needed two attempts to smother Harkes's cross at Hirst's feet.

Villa had to rely on a more direct approach, knocking the ball up to Atkinson and Saunders in the hope that they could outpace Wednesday's rearguard. And they did. Against the run of play, they scored with their first real attack. Saunders darted to the byline and screwed the ball back. Paul Warhurst got his head to it but the ball fell to Atkinson, who drove a crisp half-volley into the corner before Chris Woods could move. That settled Villa's nerves.

With both sides in full flow, Wednesday restored parity seven minutes later. Hirst released Waddle on a run into the box and Bright side-footed home his low cross. He might have had two more before half-time, but turned a ball from Hirst round the post and Steve Staunton blocked another effort after Waddle had created the opportunity.

After the break, Wednesday faded a little, but Villa retained their composure and Atkinson settled matters mid-way through the second half. Anderson failed to cut out a through-ball from Neil Cox, and the striker sold by Ron Atkinson during his tenure at Hillsborough drove in the loose ball.

Bright might have redeemed Wednesday in the closing seconds but headed Nigel Worthington's cross over the bar and Villa hung on to move into third place. But Wednesday will play worse and fare better against most other Premier League sides.

Sheffield Wednesday: C Woods; R Nilsson, N Worthington, C Palmer, V Anderson, P Warhurst, J Harkes (C Bart-Williams, 77 min), C Waddle, D Hirst, M Bright, J Sheridan (G Watson, 81 min). Sub not used: K Pressman (gk). Player-manager: T Francis.

Aston Villa: M Bosnich; E Barrett, S Staunton, N Cox, P McGrath, K Richardson, D Yorke, G Parker, D Saunders, D Atkinson, B Small. Subs not used: M Breitkreutz, C Regis, M Oakes (gk). Manager: R Atkinson.

Referee: R Hard (Darlington).

Goals: Atkinson (0-1, 19 min); Bright (1-1, 26 min); Atkinson (1-2, 67 min).