Football: Villa survive test of their character

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IT WAS surely just coincidence but, given John Gregory's unorthodox management style, it could have been a cheeky bit of one-upmanship. No sooner had Alex Ferguson finished deflecting questions about the loss of Brian Kidd than Gregory rubbed it in by sending his own No 2, Steve Harrison, to represent him in the press conference. It was if to say: "You may have 19 internationals, but you don't have an assistant manager."

It was appropriate enough because, while Manchester United had been wrestling with the disruption caused by Kidd's departure, Aston Villa had clearly been reaping the value of a good No 2. United's visit represented the biggest test of their three-month reign as Premiership leaders and there was evidence that Harrison's well-known qualities as a joker, and less publicised expertise as a defensive coach, had both been in use last week.

From the man on the Tannoy, who sounded in awe of United's reputation at half-time, to the players, who had not even scored against them for three years, it was clear that respect was the order of the day. Lee Hendrie confessed he had been "so excited I couldn't sleep last night" and even Dwight Yorke was accorded a generous greeting before the game - and was less abused than David Beckham during it.

Thus, when United when ahead after 46 minutes, one could have forgiven Villa for thinking the game was up. Instead they produced a vibrant response which deserved the resulting 1-1 draw, even if it did take a deflected goal to secure the point.

"It was an important game for us, particularly the young lads," said Gareth Southgate, the Aston Villa captain. "United are used to playing these games and we aren't. Every match they play the opposition are really fired up. You have to play in these games to gain that experience and it will do us the world of good, we came through it well."

Villa were also much more secure at the back than in recent matches. They had begun the season playing a compact 3-5-2 and, in their first 10 games, conceded just three goals. Then Dion Dublin arrived and they switched to playing three up front, with Paul Merson playing off the front pair.

Though they scored as many goals (11) in the next four games as they had in the first 10, they conceded nine. On Saturday Gregory and Harrison, to general approval from the players, reverted to 3-5-2, and Villa looked much more secure.

"It was important today to be solid," added Southgate, "but we didn't create any less, which was pleasing. The midfield did a great job going forward and getting back." One of those midfielders, Alan Thompson, who impressed on his recall, added hopefully: "I think playing three in midfield is where we are best and we should see more of that system."

Whether Villa made enough chances is debatable. They had more pressure than United, but did not create that much. Hendrie and Ian Taylor got in each others' way after one flowing first-half move, Ugo Ehiogu went close with two headers from corners, and there were several pots from the edge of the box but Peter Schmeichel was rarely tested in open play.

Gregory had admitted beforehand: "I've always known that playing a two- man midfield with Paul [Merson] behind the strikers was a risk, but while three men in the middle makes us rock solid we lose something offensively. We're not as creative or free-scoring." Since defences win championships, though, Villa may stay with the present system - especially if Thompson, Taylor and Hendrie can increase their goal threat.

It is certainly the shape likely to be seen at Chelsea on Wednesday and probably at home to Arsenal on Sunday, though Merson will be doing his utmost to be fit for that game. On Saturday, with the wing-backs pushed on, it gave Villa a numerical supremacy in midfield that United only rectified by bringing on Nicky Butt for Andy Cole. On another day, not with half an eye on Wednesday's European tie with Bayern Munich, they might have responded by pushing their full-backs on.

It would have made for a more attractive game though, after Paul Scholes' well-taken goal for United, from Cole's fine cross, the match improved immensely. Villa deserved Julian Joachim's equaliser for their subsequent brio even if the goal was fortuitous, the ball looping over Schmeichel after hitting Denis Irwin's shin.

Villa finished stronger and were thus left ruing a missed opportunity. United departed happily with a point and, equally importantly, a clean bill of health. Ryan Giggs had a half and may start against Bayern, especially as Jesper Blomqvist was anonymous.

Villa, like United's other Premiership challengers, will be cheering them on. "I'd like them to go through for the good of our game," said Southgate, "but from a selfish point of view I want them involved as long as possible anyway. I think they deserve to go through, the way they've been playing, and I believe they have more than enough to do so."

While Ferguson prepares for Bayern without his right-hand man, Gregory should have a new task for his No 2. A lack of depth is one reason why Villa's challenge is often dismissed and, while United had Giggs, Butt, Teddy Sheringham and Ronny Johnsen on the bench Villa had the unheralded Simon Grayson and four unknowns. This, it transpired, was partly due to Gregory finding that his much-vaunted "English-only" policy does not prevent internal disharmony. While injuries (Mark Bosnich, Merson) and suspension (Stan Collymore) accounted for three senior players, three others, Mark Draper, the transfer-listed Riccardo Scimeca, and Gary Charles, who is said to have been involved in a training-ground dispute with Gregory, were "out of favour".

This may be inevitable in a strong squad, but it is unhealthy for a championship- chasing one. One of a good No 2's tasks is to act as a buffer between the manager and disaffected players and, with a demanding week ahead, Harrison may have to brush down his joke book.

Goals: Scholes (47) 0-1; Joachim (55) 1-1.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry; Watson, Hendrie, Taylor, Thompson, Wright; Joachim, Dublin. Substitutes not used: Rachel (gk), Lescott, Vassall, Ferraresi, Grayson.

Manchester United (4-4-2): Schmeichel; Brown, G Neville, Stam, Irwin; Beckham, Keane, Scholes, Blomqvist (Giggs, h-t); Yorke, Cole (Butt, 69). Substitutes not used: Van der Gouw (gk), Johnsen, Sheringham.

Referee: M Riley (Leeds).

Booked: Aston Villa: Ehiogu. Manchester United: Neville, Yorke, Irwin.

Men of the match: Thompson and Hendrie.

Attendance: 39,241.