Wimbledon. . . .0
THIS must have been the only occasion involving Wimbledon when a kick-off had to be delayed through the pressure of crowds trying to get in. Once inside for nearly 80 minutes they must have wondered whether even half-price admission was a good investment, but in the end Dwight Yorke managed to break an untidy deadlock and keep Villa top of the Premier League.
If, like the pantomime ogre, Wimbledon came but once a year, a few hisses and they would be gone. Instead, they always come back, especially it seems to haunt Villa who they recently knocked out of the FA Cup. Before that earlier this season they had lost by only 3-2 in the League and there had been several other games over the last few seasons in which they had riled Villa, just as they have every other bigwig in the League.
Yesterday Villa needed to consolidate their fragile lead over Manchester United but they had again seen Dalian Atkinson set back by a recurrence of a tiresome, prolonged injury, and they had failed in their efforts to buy the wandering gunslinger, Mick Harford. Facing the south London spoilers when their balance on top of the Premier League was so delicate was unenviable.
Atkinson's absence caused Cyrille Regis to rejoin Dean Saunders at the head of the Villa attack with Dwight Yorke dropping deeper into wide midfield on the right. That may have been intended to match power with power but was irrelevant in the early flow which was forced by Wimbledon and supported powerfully by the long throws of Vinnie Jones - how ironic on the day Fifa was proposing the replacement of the throw- in with the kick-in.
In spite of squandering two chances in the first 10 minutes, Villa were in an immediate state of dishevelment. Their defending was uncertain and Wimbledon's strength in the middle of the field allowed few chances to develop a counter-attacking game.
Saunders squandered a head-on by Yorke, and Yorke himself failed to control the ball when Wimbledon's goalkeeper was undecided whether to come out to intercept. Whether it was the frustration of those misses or the irritating way Wimbledon consistently broke up their rhythm, Villa allowed themselves to be provoked into a relentless series of ill-tempered exchanges. For the team paid so many compliments this season for their imaginative football, it was an unnecessary lapse of discipline that throughout hampered their progress.
Uncertainty and even hints of panic continued to dog them. Ron Atkinson came stamping down out of the stand to make his annoyance felt but the trend was not easily changed. Jones kept on showing the value of the long throw, especially when one of his more muscular efforts was met by Steve Cotterill and Neil Cox had to save off the line.
Had it not been for the familiar competence of Paul McGrath, Villa would undoubtedly have been in more trouble. Wimbledon were making no pretence to entertain - chance would be a fine thing - and blustered on. Atkinson's reaction was to move Yorke back to his usual position wide on the left and have Ray Houghton try to stretch the Wimbledon defence on the right. But getting Saunders and Regis free in the centre of the attack remained the consuming problem.
Cox sometimes tried to come in behind Villa's front two, but his need was usually greater in defence. Not that he had much luck when he did get forward. Early in the second half he pursued a Villa attack only to have a close-range shot blocked by John Scales. Blocking is something that Wimbledon do with formidable consistency and depressing regularity.
McGrath's calmness and careful distribution remained the only beacon in the darkness of this awful match. Easy though it would be to condemn Wimbledon for their destructiveness, it was Villa's responsibility to penetrate the gloom. They spent virtually the whole of the second half attacking but without ever looking to have the depth of ideas expected of potential champions. Yet earlier performances this season had so often suggested the reverse.
How Villa and their huge crowd of more than 34,000 yearned for a moment of originality from Saunders who was forever having the ball snatched off his toes by this stubborn and quick Wimbledon defence. Even when he did find himself with some room to think he was 25 yards out. Typically, though, he thought quickly and attempted to dip a shot over Segers who was relieved to see it spin over.
Yorke gradually began to have more influence as he left his wing and moved inside, so, when Regis headed him into possession in the heart of the penalty area, he was ready to slot in the long-awaited winner just as the snow began to fall and the crowd had thoughts of home fires.
Aston Villa: M Bosnich; E Barrett, S Staunton, S Teale, P McGrath, K Richardson, R Houghton, N Cox, D Saunders, D Yorke, C Regis. Subs not used: S Beinlich, B Small, N Spink (gk). Manager: R Atkinson.
Wimbledon: H Segers; R Joseph, G Elkins, V Jones, J Scales, B McAllister, N Ardley, R Earle, J Fashanu, S Cotterill, G Dobbs (A Clarke, 80 min). Subs not used: D Blackwell, N Sullivan (gk). Manager: J Kinnear.
Referee: S Lodge (Barnsley).
Goal: Yorke (1-0, 79 min).
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