Agbonlahor cures Villa's Europe blues

Aston Villa 2 Fulham 0
Click to follow
The Independent Football

Aston Villa shrugged off the disappointment of a premature exit from Europe to conjure that comparative rarity over the past 12 months, a home victory, although they did not have to reproduce the form that stunned Liverpool at Anfield in order to beat a feeble Fulham side.

As if in sympathy with Villa, after their Uefa Cup defeat by Rapid Vienna on a night Fulham were undertaking a five-hour flight back from Russia following their own success in the Europa League, the visitors even gave their hosts a goal start when John Paintsil headed into his own net.

They extended their charity to Gabriel Agbonlahor, allowing the Villa striker far too much room before he powered his first goal at Villa Park in 2009 beyond Mark Schwarzer. Ciaran Clark, Martin O'Neill's 19-year-old second-team captain, was able to enjoy an unflustered debut as replacement for the injured Curtis Davies, while Brad Friedel did not have a save to make.

O'Neill, whose team won only seven times before their own crowd last season, called the early goal "a big tonic". The Villa manager was particularly pleased for Agbonlahor, adding: "It was a fantastic goal. He says he just hit it, but he struck it brilliantly."

He then asked whether the opener was an own goal. When assured it was, he quipped: "Gabby's in there boasting about that one." Villa, said O'Neill, remained "very much" in the market for players before tomorrow's transfer deadline but was not in a position to elaborate on whether Richard Dunne would be arriving from Manchester City because he had been focused on Fulham's visit. His Fulham counterpart, Roy Hodgson, surprised reporters by claiming he knew nothing about reports that he was to be invited to manage the Great Britain team at the 2012 Olympics, but said it would be an "honour" to be asked.

While acknowledging a "poor performance", Hodgson declined to make tiredness an excuse after Fulham's continental exertions. He complained that the first goal had stemmed from a "ludicrous succession" of mistakes. Exempting Paintsil from absolute blame, he admitted Ashley Young's delivery had been difficult to counter.

With just 150 seconds on the clock, Young's delivery led to Villa taking the lead, although he would not have had the chance to take a corner but for Schwarzer's sluggish attempt to clear an overhit back pass by Aaron Hughes, which ended with the goalkeeper on his backside after a miskick.

The ball was whipped in at pace to the near post, where Carlos Cuellar flicked it on. So far it looked like a move rehearsed on the training ground. Paintsil, showing an unwitting talent for improvisation, headed in under pressure from Agbonlahor, who needed a goal after having scored just twice since December but may have been embarrassed to hear the PA announcer award him this one.

Another corner by Young, after 27 minutes, saw Clark send a free header over the bar. The teenager had scored twice against Chelsea reserves in midweek and his anguished look suggested he knew he had wasted an opportunity for a far more precious goal. Young never quite recreated the menace of his first flag-kick. However, the Fulham midfielder Dickson Etuhu was sufficiently disconcerted by his trajectory in the 33rd minute to come close to emulating Paintsil's error, his header narrowly clearing the bar.

Villa's third victory in six days was complete by the hour. James Milner fed Agbonlahor, who broke through Jonathan Greening's challenge and exploited Hughes' failure to restrict his former team-mate's space by taking aim from 22 yards. A low, left- footed drive left Schwarzer clawing at fresh air.

Aston Villa (4-5-1): Friedel; Beye, Cuellar, Clark, Shorey; Milner, Reo-Coker (Carew, 73), Petrov, Sidwell, A Young; Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Albrighton, Delph, Heskey, Warnock, Gardner.

Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Paintsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Dempsey, Etuhu, Greening, Duff; Nevland (E Johnson, 76), Kamara. Substitutes not used: Zuberbühler (gk), Kelly, Baird, Gera, Riise, Smalling.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Aston Villa Sidwell; Fulham Etuhu, Greening.

Man of the match: Agbonlahor.

Attendance: 32,917.