Tim Sherwood urged his Aston Villa players to show their mettle and they responded, twice coming from behind here to salvage a point when it seemed they would suffer the most damaging of defeats to a key rival in the Premier League relegation battle. All three of their goals came from Christian Benteke, whose form has returned at a timely moment.
Of course, they would have been happier with a victory but, having been on the brink of being dragged into the bottom three when Charlie Austin scored his 17th league goal of the season – to give Chris Ramsey’s side the scent of a second consecutive away win – a share of the points felt like an achievement.
Benteke’s two goals in the first half had overturned the Matt Phillips header that gave Rangers first blood, but then Villa’s nervous defence conceded twice more in the second half, first to Clint Hill, the 36-year-old defender who had never scored a Premier League goal, and then to the ever-dangerous Austin, before Benteke completed his hat-trick with a stunning free-kick.
It means that Villa, who next take on Sherwood’s old club, Tottenham, stay three points ahead of Rangers, who remain in the bottom three with six matches remaining. Villa are still fearful of relegation for the first time since 1987 but can rest easier than otherwise might have been the case.
Sherwood had gambled with his team selection, making five changes from the side beaten at Old Trafford on Saturday. The biggest surprise, given the concern Sherwood had voiced about having too few strong characters, was a starting spot for 19-year-old Jack Grealish.
It was hardly surprising, then, that the atmosphere around Villa Park at the start was nervous, yet any thoughts that the match might be a cagily tight affair evaporated with the exchange of goals inside the first 10 minutes.
The rejigged Villa back four never looked comfortable and they were undone on the visitors’ first attack after a failure to clear an Austin cross from the right. It led to Bobby Zamora controlling the ball on the left and delivering a cross from which Phillips, stealing in at the far post, scored with a diving header.
It was the work of a Rangers side in good heart after their thumping win at West Bromwich at the weekend, even though it had been only their second success in 14.
Yet to the home crowd it was an unexpected blow, given Villa had begun on the front foot, full of positive intent. It was to the team’s credit, then, that their response was to continue in the same manner, gaining a quick reward. Fabian Delph, the captain, released Benteke on a run down the left, the Belgian turned inside his marker and unleashed a quick shot, the ball catching the heel of defender Steven Caulker before curling away from Rob Green.
Every Rangers attack had Villa fans holding their breath but at the other end it was a different story. Villa seemed to have more goals in them. Grealish, looking confident in his role behind the front two, perhaps should have given them the lead, Green denying him at close range after Joey Barton’s stretch for a Benteke pass merely set up a shooting chance.
But there were more chances to come, with Benteke always the danger. A second goal for the Belgian followed – a poor one from Ramsey’s view point. Gabby Agbonlahor sent Benteke through the middle with a brave flick, just as Sandro lunged in to take him out in the centre circle. Caulker and Hill appeared to be covering Benteke’s run but did not attempt a tackle and somehow the striker found an angle to shoot past Green and into the corner.
Sherwood, who had thrown his coat to the floor after Benteke’s opener, now set off on a run along the touchline, unable to contain his emotions.
Yet the drama was far from over. Ten minutes into the second half, Rangers were back on terms when Villa’s defence was beaten at a set piece as they failed to track Hill’s run when Phillips delivered a corner from the right. Using Caulker as a shield, he reached the ball first and, via head and shoulder, steered it past Brad Guzan.
Villa tried to impose themselves again but their nerve was beginning to crack and Rangers were growing in belief. Ramsey’s substitutions gave them a licence to attack and prey on the home side’s uncertainty and it brought them a third goal.
Phillips, so often the creator, provided the telling ball again, a cross from the right which Austin, driving into space, met with a strong connection, firing past Guzan from close range.
Villa looked sunk, their heads dropping, until a rash challenge from Hill on the substitute Charles N’Zogbia gave them a free-kick. Benteke showed a cool head where others might have been found wanting, curling a shot over the wall and out of Green’s reach to salvage what might yet be the most important point of Villa’s season.
Man of the match Benteke.
Match rating 8/10.
Referee C Pawson (South Yorkshire).
Attendance 33,708.Reuse content