Aston Villa 2 Tottenham Hotspur 1: O'Neill's European ambition spurs Villa to greater heights

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The Independent Football

Such has been the growth in confidence at Aston Villa since Martin O'Neill began to convince these players to believe in his own ambitions that they would now regard failing to secure a place in Europe next season as a major disappointment. This win moved that goal a little closer, taking Villa for the moment ahead of Manchester City into the top six of the Premier League.

The manner of its attainment was also testament to Villa's burgeoning spirit, secured with a goal five minutes from the end by Martin Laursen after Tottenham, outplayed and trailing to Olof Mellberg's header in the first half, had responded positively, equalised through Jermain Defoe and seemingly kept their record under Juande Ramos to only two defeats in 15 matches before failing to defend a set-piece proved their undoing for the second time in the match.

Villa's progress under O'Neill is borne out by statistics, their points' tally just past the halfway stage in the Premier League campaign representing their best for eight seasons. Yet last evening's match was a test for them in several ways.

For one they had been keen to expunge the uncomfortable memory of their visit to White Hart Lane at the beginning of October when they held a 4-1 lead but allowed Tottenham in what was to be Martin Jol's last home Premier League match to snatch a point with three goals in the last 21 minutes.

For another there was a need to ease the pressure that had been building over their home form after winning only once against Derby in four attempts at Villa Park in almost three months, a task made more difficult, it seemed, by the loss with a knee injury of striker John Carew, increasingly a key component in O'Neill's tactical system.

Furthermore they were faced with a Tottenham side that had scored 11 goals in two matches, albeit one from which leading scorer Robbie Keane was rested from the starting XI. With Dimitar Berbatov to contain, Villa's slow-to-settle defender Curtis Davies would have taken it as a vote of confidence, after his impressive form at Wigan last weekend, that he was retained ahead of Zat Knight to start a home league match for the first time.

Given that the coveted Bulgarian did not have a real sniff of goal until the 44th minute it looked a justifiable show of faith in the former Luton and West Bromwich Albion centre back.

Indeed, while chances were never given on a plate by a Tottenham defence again without Ledley King but with Michael Dawson back, Villa always looked likelier to make a breakthrough before half-time, Luke Moore flashing an early attempt narrowly wide, Stiliyan Petrov forcing Paul Robinson to stretch to keep out a low drive and Gabriel Agbonlahor's pace and strength constantly troublesome.

Laursen should have put Villa in front midway through the half, blasting wildly over the bar from close-range after the ball had spun dangerously across the Tottenham goal from a near-post cross.

But the Dane's blushes were spared in the 40th minute when Dawson, who had been deployed to nullify the aerial threat of Mellberg at every Villa set-piece, curiously deserted his post. Brought down on the left by Kevin-Prince Boateng, Ashley Young floated in a free kick and the Swede rose above everyone to head firmly past Robinson for his second goal of the campaign.

Tottenham's relative ineffectiveness to that point prompted changes to personnel and system by Ramos, who replaced Boateng with Tom Huddlestone at half-time and had used both his other substitutes within the first 12 minutes of the second half.

Keane took over from Aaron Lennon, who had been scarcely involved, and when 21-year-old Jamie O'Hara was sent on for Younes Kaboul it was to play in a 3-4-3 set-up, in effect. Jermaine Jenas and O'Hara gave width to the midfield quartet while Berbatov now had Keane as well as Defoe as allies in attack.

Villa soon looked less comfortable, particularly in defending balls delivered from the flanks and Keane first touch, almost, was a shot that deflected for a corner off the head of Davies.

Then again, Villa might have made their lead more secure after 68 minutes when Moore, who had positioned himself wisely as Petrov drove in to cross from the right but scuffed his shot wide. Moments later, Tottenham's appeal for a penalty over a Davies challenge on Keane were waved away by referee Steve Tanner.

It was clear, though, given Tottenham's dominance of possession by this point that Villa would do well not to concede and it was no surprise, therefore, that the visitors did force an equaliser, with just over 11 minutes remaining.

There was an element of fortune, perhaps, in the run of the ball. When Gareth Barry attempted to head away Dawson's chip into the box, his clearance went directly to Berbatov, whose first touch in turn ran kindly for Defoe to fire home his fifth goal in seven games.

However, Tottenham were undone again, five minutes from time, this time by Laursen. As Barry curled a corner in from the right, Dawson clambered all over Mellberg but no one rose with Laursen and his header bulged the net to clinch the points for Villa.

Goals: Mellberg (41) 1-0, Defoe (71) 1-1, Laursen (85) 2-1.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Carson; Mellberg, Davies, Laursen, Bouma (Maloney 83); Petrov, Reo-Coker, Barry, Young; Moore ( Gardner 74), Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Harewood, Knight.

Tottenham Hotspur (4-4-2): Robinson; Zokora, Dawson, Kaboul (O'Hara, 57), Lee; Lennon (Keane, 54), Boateng (Huddlestone, h/t), Jenas, Malbranque; Defoe, Berbatov. Substitutes not used: Cerny (gk), Taarabt.

Referee: S Tanner (Somerset).

Booked: Tottenham Malbranque 23, Dawson 33, Zokora 89.

Man of the Match: Laursen.

Attendance: 41,609.

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