Football: Woodwork denies Saunders as Villa miss out

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa. . . . .0

Tottenham Hotspur. .0

ASTON VILLA, who required an eighth successive home victory to wrest the Premier League leadership from Manchester United in advance of Sunday's summit meeting at Old Trafford, endured a night of thwarted ambition against the FA Cup semi-finalists at Villa Park.

Tottenham's goal bore a charmed life. Dean Saunders twice beat Erik Thorstvedt only for the ball to rebound off an upright each time, and had another effort ruled out in dubious circumstances. Throw in Keith Hackett's inability to spot a blatant penalty in Villa's favour, and there was enough here to trick even the watching Alex Ferguson into a smile.

Villa's failure to take a two- point advantage, 24 hours after United's unexpected defeat at Oldham, gave third-placed Norwich's success at Bramall Lane added significance. Ron Atkinson, the Villa manager, insisted: 'It's not a two-horse race - I've been saying that for ages.' His team have still to visit Norfolk.

Atkinson added that Spurs had been very defensive - 'I could have played in goal for us' - but on another evening his team might well have emulated Sheffield United's achievement in scoring six against a supine Spurs a week earlier. Unfortunately for Villa, the visitors' self-esteem was restored by Sunday's rout of Manchester City, and they defended doggedly as well as enjoying good fortune.

Following a tentative start by the home side, in which Shaun Teale had to make a superb sliding tackle to stop Darren Anderton, the 38,000 inside (more than 1,000 were locked out of the Holte End) saw Villa take control.

Garry Parker was behind most of their better moves. In the 15th minute, he sent Dwight Yorke through on Thorstvedt. The keeper looked favourite to claim the ball, but Neil Ruddock made sure with a surreptitious foul on the Villa striker. Mr Hackett, who is remembered for controversially sending off West Ham's Tony Gale on this ground in an FA Cup semi-final two years ago, saw nothing untoward.

Yorke should have exacted retribution after 23 minutes, but sent a diving header too close to Thorstvedt. Villa's frustration, compounded by Spurs' monotonous use of the offside trap, was soon to become almost tangible.

In the 36th minute, the previously subdued Saunders got behind the defence and lobbed Thorstvedt as he charged out of his area. It looked a certain goal, and the Welshman was already wheeling away in celebration, but Justin Edinburgh had chased back to turn a lost cause into a dramatic clearance under the bar.

Exasperation grew when, three minutes before the interval, Saunders fired against the far post. It turned to disbelief four minutes after the break when, taking another slide-rule pass from Parker, he met an identical fate.

With hindsight, Atkinson may feel he delayed the substitution of Tony Daley, who made a peripheral return after six months out with a knee injury, for too long. However, Old Trafford beckons, and this is no time for looking back.

Aston Villa: Bosnich; Barrett, Staunton, Teale, McGrath, Richardson, Houghton, Parker, Saunders, Yorke, Daley (Regis, 85). Substitutes not used: Cox, Spink (gk).

Tottenham Hotspur: Thorstvedt; Austin, Edinburgh, Samways, Mabbutt, Ruddock, Sedgley, Nayim, Anderton, Sheringham, Gray (Turner, 72). Substitutes not used: Van den Hauwe, Walker (gk).

Referee: K Hackett (Sheffield).

Arsenal in final, page 39