Football: Villa's blond ambition

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A moment of pure slapstick encapsulated an unconvincing Aston Villa display which, until a late change in personnel and tactics, looked likely to end in Derby's first away victory.

Sasa Curcic and Mark Draper, sporting identical bleached hairstyles and similar of frame and footwork, collided like circus clowns early in the second half. When the Villa midfielders saw who they had bumped into, it must have been like seeing their own reflections.

For all his renewed loyalty to the cause, Curcic's feelings may have mirrored more closely those of the Derby players at the finish. Flavour of the week after coming off the transfer list to take an eye-catching cameo role in Bordeaux, the Serb experienced the sour taste of being substituted and seeing his replacement transform the contest.

With Villa trailing to Francisco Baiano's first goal since arriving from Florence, Brian Little threw on Julian Joachim as a third striker. Joachim, a budding Romario in his formative days at Leicester, has started even fewer matches than Curcic over the past year, but was to make an immediate impact.

Using his pace to get behind the defence in a way that the strangely sluggish Stan Collymore never managed, the newcomer unsettled Derby. A corner needlessly conceded resulted in Dwight Yorke's equaliser, and within a further three minutes Joachim marked his 23rd birthday by sweeping in only his second goal of 1997.

Until then, Little sighed, it had looked like being "another long weekend - with Liverpool to come on Monday". Energetically as his peroxide playmakers applied themselves, it was a case of the blonds leading the bland. Derby came, they scored, they cantered, and were much the more cohesive unit.

So much so that Jim Smith might have been quietly satisfied heading in for half-time. In fact, the Derby manager explained later, he was angry. Villa were "there for the taking", but he sensed that his team were neither passing nor holding the ball well enough to take them.

Smith trusts that the full return of Aljosa Asanovic, in tandem with Baiano and Stefano Eranio, will address such failings without his having to buy. Villa, with a far bigger budget yet also greater expectations, may have won the day, but Little will not be deluding himself that they are back to the top-five standards of the last two seasons.

They were too predictable here for that. The Yorke-Collymore partnership seldom sparked and will not ignite until the latter matches the Tobagan's willingness to work. Villa's record recruit is at his most menacing running at opponents rather than taking possession with his back to goal, but he showed no inclination to graft.

When it was suggested that "Stan was outstanding", the Villa manager's eyebrows raised momentarily. Then he realised the reporter was being over familiar with Steve Staunton's nickname. However, Collymore also has a right to expect better service on what will be a prickly return to Anfield, where Villa have given up three goals in each of three defeats under Little.

At least his place is not in doubt. Curcic, after such a short-lived rehabilitation, will be anxious to hear the line-up. Exclusion would suggest, ominously for his long-term prospects, that Saturday's creative axis were deemed to have duplicated each other in more than just appearance. But if Little does not rush to judgement, it could still be a night for going once more into the bleach.

Goals: Baiano (14) 0-1; Yorke (72) 1-1; Joachim (75) 2-1.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Ehiogu, Staunton (Scimeca, 87), Southgate; Nelson, Taylor, Curcic (Joachim, 68), Draper, Wright; Yorke, Collymore (Milosevic, 90). Substitutes not used: Grayson, Oakes (gk).

Derby County (3-5-2): Poom; Dailly, Rowett, Laursen; Eranio, Hunt (Asanovic, 62), Carsley, Trollope, C Powell; Sturridge (Burton, 74), Baiano (Wanchope, 80). Substitutes not used: Van der Laan, Hoult (gk).

Referee: J Winter (Stockton-on-Tees).

Man of the match: Yorke.

Attendance: 35,444.

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