Villa Park, or whatever name they may chose to call it in the end, is a joyful place to be nowadays. This side, under the wily Martin O'Neill, appear rejuvenated and the players, a disillusioned and dispirited bunch that staggered to 16th in the final Premiership standings last season, are now playing purposeful football.
Last night, however, they staggered against a spirited Fulham team that stifled their creativity and left O'Neill disappointed with his side's performance. "We didn't play well," he said. "It was an opportunity to play with some gusto and panache. We were at home, the onus was on us to play and we could not get going. We have to play flat out to get results and we were not flat out. We were just flat. I thought we were ready, and we weren't."
After last night, they have gone 10 games without a defeat, the only team unbeaten in the division but on a dreary, wet day in Birmingham, Villa were poor. On 26 minutes, they were awarded a contentious penalty. The young Fulham defender Liam Rosenior was adjudged to have fouled Stilian Petrov, who appeared to tumble a little too easily. Gareth Barry, who took over spot-kick responsibilities from Juan Pablo Angel following the Colombian's miss last week, lashed the ball past Antti Niemi. On closer inspection it appeared that Rosenior had every reason to feel aggrieved.
"As soft a penalty as you have ever seen," said the Fulham manager Chris Coleman. "It was clever by Petrov. It must've been difficult to make that decision in front of the Holte End."
With Villa cruising, they allowed complacency to creep in. Fulham equalised moments before half-time when Moritz Volz ghosted in at the back post to convert Tomasz Radzinski's cross. It left O'Neill furious.
Try as they might, both teams struggled to put together any serious opportunities in a poor second half. The young Gabriel Agbonlahor was pushed alongside Angel after injury forced the withdrawal of the ineffective Milan Baros. Barry, meanwhile, was pushed into midfield to inject some creativity. With some clever touches and assured running he would have impressed the watching England manager Steve McClaren.
O'Neill said of his skipper: "I thought sometimes he wants to do everything. There were occasional easier balls. He is still a very fine player and I am sure that he will get an opportunity with the England squad."
Barry delivered a free-kick low into the penalty area on 55 minutes. It evaded his waiting team-mates and curled just past Niemi's post. Villa, though, were struggling and at the other end were forced to fend off intense Fulham pressure.
On 61 minutes, Angel found himself with the ball at the edge of the penalty area. His low, right-footed shot was easily save by Niemi. Radzinski, on 65 minutes, came close with a smart turn and shot that Thomas Sorensen plucked out of the air as Fulham showed their dangerous side.
Barry delivered another fine cross on 75 minutes but the Swedish defender Olof Mellberg could not direct his header goalwards. The remainder of the game fizzled out as both teams settled for a point.Reuse content