Football: Villa's class defies the law

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Aston Villa. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .2

Nottingham Forest. . . . . . . . . . . . . . .1

PAUL McGRATH'S reputation as the classiest - and arguably cleanest - centre-back in the country may have spared him an ignominy which would have left Villa to maintain their status as 5-2 championship favourites without him over Christmas.

With eight minutes left, Forest's annus horribilis looked set for another belated upturn as Roy Keane raced clear with a chance to equalise. He was stopped by what appeared a clear professional foul, McGrath's challenge from behind felling his fellow Irishman just outside the area. Thorvaldur Orlygsson, backing up, hesitated, possibly expecting a whistle, and Villa cleared.

Law XII (n) is unambiguous. If an attacker is denied 'an obvious scoring opportunity' by 'unlawful means' the offender must be dismissed. Instead, Forest suffered Sod's law, and McGrath was not even spoken to by the referee, Joe Worrall, who must have given him the benefit of a somewhat slender doubt.

McGrath admitted: 'Roy was a bit aggrieved. I had to lunge at him, or he'd have been through. I think I might have made contact with the ball as well, but I'll have to look at it again on TV.' Match of the Day, in its wisdom, denied him that opportunity. While Mr Worrall was close to the incident, many of his decisions did nothing to inspire confidence.

It is hard to imagine many players being treated with such leniency (though not to picture what Stuart Pearce might have made of a direct free-kick from such a position). But then McGrath, whose otherwise imperious display earlier brought him what proved the decisive goal, is no ordinary individual.

Ron Atkinson justifiably described his towering header, which ripped past Mark Crossley after half-time, as 'John Charles stuff - he came out of the clouds'. McGrath's overall performance reminded one more of Franco Baresi at his most elegant, timing and anticipation repeatedly stifling danger where others would have needed a crashing tackle.

As for Forest, wins for the three clubs directly above them left them four points adrift at the bottom. McGrath later provided the obligatory too-good-to-go-down line offered by all conquerors of Brian Clough's men, saying: 'We won't face many better teams.' For once, such praise did not sound like sympathy for the old devil. There really was little between the sides - certainly nothing to indicate a 20-place disparity.

Whether Forest can turn the plaudits into the points Villa are consistently accumulating, time will tell. They still need a more commanding goalkeeper than Crossley, more pace in central defence and a regular scorer - Newcastle's Mick Quinn, with six goals in four loan matches for hard-up Coventry, seems ideally priced at just pounds 250,000.

For Atkinson, the pleasing aspect must be the way Villa's pursuit of Norwich has withstood a spate of withdrawals in the past fortnight - top scorer Dalian Atkinson (groin) was the latest casualty - though at least one of his squad may now be irreplaceable.

Goals: Keane (9) 0-1; Regis (34) 1-1; McGrath (47) 2-1.

Aston Villa: Spink; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker, Saunders, Regis, Cox. Substitutes not used: Yorke, Breitkreutz, Oakes (gk).

Nottingham Forest: Crossley; Laws, Pearce, Chettle, Tiler, Keane, Webb, Gemmill, Clough, Glover (Orlygsson, 78), Black. Substitutes not used: Bannister, Marriott (gk).

Referee: J Worrall (Warrington).