Football: Villa reveal hard side of title drive

Aston Villa 1 Leicester City 1
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The Independent Online
THERE ARE many things to admire about John Gregory's Aston Villa but you rarely read about their ability to chase partly because they have hardly needed to get it out of the kitbag. Their games this season have tended to go goal, thank you and good night.

Which made this match as perversely pleasurable for the Villa manager as the more flamboyant performances. This was a draw dug when circumstance appeared to be ganging up on them and his comment "not too much damage done" was borne of satisfaction as much as relief. They had surrendered their first points at home, but they had got something.

There was resilience in bagfuls at Villa Park on Saturday and that was just from the 39,241 souls who braved desperate conditions and the inadequate traffic management to get in and out of Aston. On the pitch, with the gale hurling the rain down with hose-pipe ferocity it was utterly miserable.

It was just Villa's luck to be facing a Leicester team that would chase a lost clause through a gentlemen's agreement if they had to and one that was buoyed by the decision of their manager, Martin O'Neill, decision to stay with the club. There is rarely a good time to meet the Filbert Street foragers and Saturday was less propitious than most.

Particularly when Tony Cottee put them ahead after 35 minutes, lashing the ball past Michael Oakes after Theo Zagorakis had converted an errant cross from Steve Guppy into a glorious crossfield pass with some intricate work on the byline.

Villa were creaking like an elderly man getting out of the chair. Gareth Barry looked an England player only if you regarded hesitancy and error as the international norm these days while Lee Hendrie looked lost and Paul Merson's passes were finding the stands rather than his colleagues. Add weariness caused by their midweek labours in Europe and they were in trouble.

"In the first half in particular we were disappointing," Gregory conceded, "Very edgy. I don't know why but we looked nervous. It was an unusual situation because we haven't been a goal behind very often and we showed character to come back."

Particularly as Matt Elliott was having one of those days when he looks like the best defender in the Premiership. Strong and surprisingly skilful in possession, the Leicester centre-half loomed as large as the Holte End, barring Villa's advances like a big and unfriendly bouncer.

It was going to take something unusual to defeat him and Villa provided it after 67 minutes: an accurate corner. "That's the first time we'd put one into the six-yard box," Gregory said. "Most of the time we've hit the first defender which was driving me mental. I told them at half-time to get them into the mixer."

Hendrie duly did and Ehiogu, taking advantage of a slight slip by Elliott, arrived with the force of the malicious wind to head emphatically past Kasey Keller.

The goal was timely for Villa and for Ehiogu, who has been an overlooked rock on which Villa's impressive run to the top of the Premiership has been built. "He's not had as much mention in the press as he should have done," Gregory said, "because all the headlines have been about Southgate and Barry. But he's been excellent this season."

So have Leicester whose position in mid-table does not do them justice. Add the four extra points they ought to have got against Manchester United and Arsenal and they would have been third on Saturday night which would be a more accurate picture of their progress under Martin O'Neill.

His side reflect their manager as much as any in the Premiership. Skilful, but most of all prodigious workers. Had he gone to Leeds, it is hard to imagine who could have brought as much out of the players.

As for the motivation man, he seemed happy to be away from the glare of speculation. "It's nice to be concentrate on football," O'Neill sighed.

Goals: Cottee (35) 0-1; Ehiogu (67) 1-1.

Aston Villa (3-5-2) Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Charles (Joachim, 60), Hendrie, Taylor, Thompson, Wright; Collymore, Merson (watson, 81). Substitutes not used: Draper, Grayson, Rachel.

Leicester City (3-5-2): Keller; Sinclair, Elliott, Ullathorne, Savage, Zagorakis (Wilson, 81), Lennon, Izzet, Guppy; Heskey, Cottee. Substitutes not used: Walsh, Parker, Fenton, Arphexad (gk).

Referee: K Burge

Bookings: Aston Villa Ehiogu; Leicester Lennon, Ullathorne.

Man of the match: Elliott.

Attendance: 39,241.