Agbonlahor gives Villa the verdict

Birmingham City 0 Aston Villa 1
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The Independent Football

Gabriel Agbonlahor will have had plenty of spare time over the last international break to ponder exactly what it will take for him to break into the England squad. Scoring the match-winner against the local rivals while the country's first-choice centre-forward languishes on the bench is certainly one way to attract Fabio Capello's attention.

It took until the 85th minute for Agbonlahor to settle a derby of sometimes mind-boggling tedium, but he did so without the help of Emile Heskey, who has played 10 minutes of Villa's last three league games. From a starting place against Croatia on Wednesday to 90 minutes on the bench at St Andrew's, Heskey's upside-down career makes you wonder where he will be next May when Capello has to make the tough decisions.

When Martin O'Neill made the decision to chase this game in the last 15 minutes it was John Carew rather than Heskey whom he picked to force the issue for Villa. Carew got the knockdown from Ashley Young's free kick from the right which Agbonlahor reacted to the quickest. Unmarked he headed the ball past Joe Hart from close range and this game was all but over.

Agbonlahor had fought a long and lonely battle against Birmingham's defenders Roger Johnson and Frank Queudrue. The 22-year-old's rawness was demonstrated moments after the goal when he broke through onto Young's pass and skied his shot but there is no doubt that he has the presence and power to lead the line.

Despite O'Neill's reassurances that Heskey will play a part this season it will be difficult for him to leave Agbonlahor out now.

The target for some unspeakable abuse about his mother from the home fans during the game, this one will have been so much the sweeter for Agbonlahor, the local boy. He also scored a late winner in this fixture in November 2007. Yesterday he said afterwards: "I looked up at the clock and thought it would be a good time to score." It is his second goal in the last two games and he, as much as anyone, has done his bit for Villa's renaissance.

O'Neill said yesterday that he believed Agbonlahor would be part of Capello's squad for the World Cup next summer. "There is a clamour for him at the moment and then if he has 15 minutes when it doesn't go well, people will discard him again," the Villa manager said. "Until the World Cup build-up gathers momentum I haven't got a major worry. If he continues to perform right through the season there is no reason for him to be disregarded."

The boos that accompanied Villa's defeat to Wigan Athletic on the first day of the season, and the murmurs of discontent around the slump that began in February, seem a long way away now. Since the victory over Liverpool at Anfield, O'Neill's side have dispatched Fulham and their local rivals and are sixth in the table now having played one game fewer than most of the teams around them.

"I thought we exerted an incredible amount of pressure," O'Neill said. "I thought we were reasonably comfortable." They only really took control in the closing stages when Young and James Milner switched wings and the latter, who had a poor first half by his high standards, started to open up Birmingham down their right side.

Until then, Alex McLeish's team had fought well to stop Villa, especially given the discrepancy in the financial resources of the two teams. McLeish switched to a 4-5-1 formation to match O'Neill's team which - with the obvious limitations of Gary O'Connor in attack - was a source for discontent among his own fans.

It was, McLeish said, "a harsh result" and he had a point. However, the failure of Birmingham to really fashion a chance other than a couple of blocked shots early on from O'Connor and Sebastian Larsson was telling. "The tactics were spot-on," McLeish said. "I felt that Villa's power in midfield could over-run us. We nullified the threat of Agbonlahor and Young, we just didn't deal with the ball they scored from. It was a free header."

There has been local unhappiness about the pricing of seats for home fans in the Railway End of St Andrew's at £48 which meant, incredibly for a local derby as bitterly divisive as this one, that there were empty seats in the stadium. But it was not the kind of brutal atmosphere that has characterised this fixture in the past, not least because the quality of the football was so poor for much of the game.

There were debuts for Richard Dunne and James Collins in the centre of the Villa defence; Collins only trained for the first time on Friday after playing for Wales on Wednesday. Dunne was arguably the pick of Villa's players and McLeish himself pointed out that the away side were much more aggressive at defending set-pieces than his team proved at the critical moment.

That moment came when Stuart Parnaby gave away a free-kick to Young on Birmingham's left side. The England international struck it to the back post where Carew headed back for Agbonlahor to finish. It was a pity for defender Roger Johnson who had been excellent until that point. "It was a soft free-kick," McLeish said, "but we should still defend it. Everyone was back in there. We have got to be more vigilant."

There was pressure from the home fans on McLeish to bring on Christian Benitez which he eventually did to little effect but it was Villa who had the chances after the goal. First Agbonlahor and then Carew on the break miscued his pass to Milner. It was not pretty for Villa but then given where they were one game into the season, that is no cause for concern.

Birmingham City (4-1-4-1): Hart; Tainio, Johnson, Queudrue, Parnaby; Ferguson; Larsson, Bowyer, Fahey, McFadden (Carsley, h-t; Phillips, 85); O'Connor (Benitez, 79). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Espinoza, McSheffrey, Johnson.

Aston Villa (4-5-1): Friedel; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, Warnock; Milner, Sidwell, Reo-Coker (Carew, 75), Petrov, Young; Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Delph, Heskey, Shorey, Beye, Gardner.

Referee: H Webb (South Yorkshire).

Booked: Birmingham Parnaby; Aston Villa Sidwell, Agbonlahor.

Man of the match: Dunne.

Attendance: 25,196.