Villa Park was definitely not the place for the footballing romantics yesterday. The day's only Premier League fixture was drawn with all the guile and doggedness one would expect from the world's most competitive league. And so Villa missed the chance to leap into the last Champions' League berth, although probably accept that the disappointment could quite easily have been that much more pronounced.
As it is, Martin O'Neill must be content with seeing his side in fifth place this morning, one place above Liverpool but having played two more games. For their part, Blackburn were at the very least deserving of a point and kept their own European aspirations alive. It was not the prettiest of encounters, but goodness was it hard fought.
Fabio Capello certainly seemed more enamoured with the grind of the Premier League than the magic of the Cup. The England manager opted for this match rather than say Arsenal versus Newcastle, but perhaps that was understandable considering the number of possibles for his first squad on view. On Thursday morning Gabriel Agbonlahor, Scott Carson and David Bentley will all be hopeful of a call, while Gareth Barry and Ashley Young will be rightfully anticipating one.
Young, in particular, had international class oozing out of him in the latter stages and his Beckhameseque free-kick was the reason Villa escaped with a point. "It was a really,really great goal," said O'Neill. "When Ashley gets the ball he is exceptional. He [Capello] must have been impressed."
It was Bentley who first caught the eye, however, when winning a penalty in the 24th minute. Nigel Reo-Coker felt harshly done by when Howard Webb adjudged him to have brought down the winger on the right side of the box with Bentley running away from goal. No matter, in Villa's opinion, justice was soon done when Carson saved Matt Derbyshire's all-too-straight spot kick. O'Neill punched the air as if one of his own men had scored a 40-yard spectacular.
Villa might have taken the lead themselves eight minutes later when John Carew almost got the necessary touch on Young's cross, although O'Neill's relief was soon palpable once more when Carson fumbled Bentley's cross. (Oh, what is Capello to do with that No 1 shirt?) Alas the thrills were even less evident than the skills.
Young tried to rectify that. In full stride there are not many finer sights in football than the lad down the Aston Villa flank with the dancing feet. His efforts initially amounted to nought, though, and it was Carson who was again to the rescue when turning over Morten Gamst Pedersen's corner in the 57th minute. When by the hour mark the only two "shots" on target have come from a penalty and then a corner, one can envisage the nature of the action.
At least the conclusion grasped the breath. It was David Dunn, impressive all afternoon, who made the decisive forage into the Villa box in the 69th minute. Carson must have believed his brilliant one-handed save off the former England man had repelled the threat but the ball fell to Roque Santa Cruz who slotted home his 11th goal of the season,despite a slight mis-kick. Revenge for the 4-0 drubbing at the hands of Villa at home in November suddenly seemed on the cards.
Yet Young had other ideas. The 22-year-old nervelessly stepped up to the 25-yard free-kick in the 73rd minute and curled it, unstoppably, around Brad Friedel. Remarkably more than 50 per cent of Villa's 48 goals so far this season have come from set-pieces. Were you watching Don Fabio? You bet he was. It was impossible to take your focus off the young man.
His cross in the 78th minute was perfection in studs. Carew did not even have to rise to meet it – well he is 6ft 6in – but his header crashed back off the crossbar. The dour affair of the first half had now given way to frenzy and both sides went all out for the win. Inevitably, Young came closest when his injury-time free-kick bent the wrong way around the post. Not enough for the three points, but surely enough for his national call-up.Reuse content