Aston Villa maintained their unbeaten home record under Martin O'Neill, but this was hardly the stuff to conjure dreams of a bid for Europe as Middlesbrough, much improved from their recent abysmal performance at Watford, claimed a deserved point from a pedestrian encounter. On this form, Gareth Southgate may be joining O'Neill at the January transfer sales.
Villa had most of the ball, but not enough invention to turn possession into triumph. On an afternoon when he was deprived of Chris Sutton and Luke Moore O'Neill used Juan Pablo Angel and Milan Baros at centre-forward, but both failed to outwit or outpace the combination of Jonathan Woodgate and Robert Huth. A new No 9 may be scribbled high on O'Neill's Christmas shopping list.
"I think we will be striving in January to improve the team," the Villa manager confirmed. "We need to do that if we are going to compete and that is what the present owner-chairman wants to do. He does not want Aston Villa to be under-achievers. I am not sure, at the moment, if that means we are going to be going for the best players in the world. But if we are talking about improving the team, yes definitely."
Southgate, who was last week permitted to carry on as Middlesbrough's manager to the end of the season, when he is scheduled to gain his Uefa Pro licence, appears to have similar problems but he can look forward to the returns of Mark Viduka and Stewart Downing. His needs may not be as serious as O'Neill's once he has a full squad available, particularly as his 5-3-2 system, as used yesterday, ensured his side would not be overrun entirely in midfield.
"We deserved a draw and I think it is a good result for us," he said. "Villa are a good team and in good form. We passed the ball a lot better than we had done for some time and I thought a draw was a fair result. As to the system, I thought it worked well for this game, but I am not sure we will use it again next week against Manchester United."
After a bold start by the visitors, Villa were soon in charge and created a succession of chances. Gareth Barry and Olof Mellberg shot wide and high, Isaiah Osbourne had a header saved and Liam Ridgewell saw a 25-yard drive turned away for a corner before Middlesbrough stole the lead after 43 minutes with a goal from Malcolm Christie that had a hint of offside about it. Making his first start of the season, Christie ran back from an offside position to score after a shot by Julio Arca had deflected into his path from a challenge by Mellberg.
"If anyone deserved a bit of good fortune, it was Malcolm," said Southgate. "He's done months of work on his own in the gym and his attitude today made a difference to the way we played." In other words, a little enthusiasm goes a long way. But Southgate was disappointed his team switched off and conceded an equaliser before the interval. "That was disappointing," he said with understatement.
Villa's goal came from aGareth Barry penalty after another controversial decision as Arca went down easily when chasing a through ball from Angel. It looked as if Mark Schwarzer had put one hand on the ball before Arca fell. "It was one of those things," grinned O'Neill. "I can understand how they felt until I mentioned that their goal was 15 yards offside!"Reuse content