Agbonlahor strikes out for Villa's cause
Aston Villa 2 Portsmouth 0
So, can Aston Villa win without Nigel Reo-Coker? In case the midfielder, dropped by Martin O'Neill after their public argument on the training ground this week, thought he was indispensable, the answer to that question will disappoint him – yes, they clearly can.
Then again, Villa will not play a team as low on confidence and short of ability as Portsmouth in a long while. This result, Villa's fourth consecutive win in the Premier League, also kept up Portsmouth's perfect, but unwanted, record since the start of the season: six games, six defeats.
Reo-Coker and his manager had a coming together on Thursday, after the former England Under-21 international criticised a team-mate for not collecting his pass. O'Neill duly upbraided Reo-Coker and things escalated until the two were separated by other players. Reo-Coker was sent home and dropped from the squad for this game – he had started in their last game, the win against Birmingham – and a reappearance in a Villa shirt looks unlikely, at least in the short term.
O'Neill said the player would be welcome back tomorrow but they looked very happy without him. After this win, he refused to add anything more to what he called a "kerfuffle".
This sequence of Villa wins started with a 3-1 win at Liverpool and since then O'Neill has seen his new signings, Richard Dunne, James Collins and Stephen Warnock slot nicely into defence. That trio had home debuts yesterday they will remember with affection.
Given O'Neill's decision to drop Reo-Coker, he opted to change from a five-man midfield, and put John Carew alongside Gabriel Agbonlahor in attack. Between them, the height and power of the former and the quicksilver speed of the latter make a tricky combination for any defence, not just one that is as low on self-esteem as Portsmouth's.
Agbonlahor got around Tal Ben Haim inside the first minute, a sign of things to come, although he did not get a shot in. Extra duties fell on Steve Sidwell and Stiliyan Petrov in central midfield but they were not unduly ruffled until Pompey piled forward at the end.
Paul Hart, the Portsmouth manager, said last week after defeat at home to Bolton, that they had to start winning soon, although he probably did not expect to extract much from this visit. The sight of Aaron Mokoena almost heading Ashley Young's low cross past David James after 11 minutes would not have changed his mind. James reacted well to avoid the own goal and push the ball over the bar.
James's authority in the penalty area was undone by one of his own players after 33 minutes. Nadir Belhadj, chasing Petrov, needlessly hooked his foot around the Bulgarian but only got the player's legs and conceded the penalty that James Milner thrashed low to his left.
Ben Haim had been guilty of such a needless penalty last week and the Israeli committed another serious error two minutes before the break, just after Jamie O'Hara had brought a save low down from Brad Friedel.
From the goalkeeper's long clearance, a header dropped to Agbonlahor. A defender with Ben Haim's experience, knowing his opponent is so much quicker, should realise he has to stop his man getting free, but off Agbonlahor went and his finish, in the top corner, left James helpless and O'Neill in awe, calling the finish "sensational".
Ben Haim's involvement in the day's main events did not end there, as his innocuous tackle on Emile Heskey's ankle ended the England forward's involvement after just 14 minutes.
For Agbonlahor, this was his third goal in as many games, which should put him back on Fabio Capello's radar. With World Cup qualification secured, and with two games to come next month, the England manager may try him out once more.
That is the last thing on Hart's mind. He called the mistakes for the goals not worthy of an under-11 side but looking at the general predicament, he said: "This is the hardest job I've ever had."
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