Aston Villa do not score many goals let alone win many matches, yet they came close to an unexpected victory at a sparsely populated Villa Park tonight, leading through Gabby Agbonlahor’s breakaway goal from the 29th minute until the 81st.
Then England’s new right-back, Nathaniel Clyne, scored his third goal of the season to spare Ronald Koeman’s side from a third defeat of the season.
Nonetheless, it had been a frustrating night for a Southampton side boasting 11 wins in their last 12 matches and who must have arrived in the Midlands expecting to clip Chelsea’s lead at the top of the table to four points.
The Villa team had arrived at the stadium less than an hour before kick-off because of traffic problems yet organised themselves well and might consider themselves unlucky not to have seen out a rare victory.
It had looked like a Villa side on a hiding to nothing against the seemingly unstoppable Saints, their defensive options shorn of both Ron Vlaar and Philippe Senderos because of injuries sustained on international duty, and Nathan Baker also sidelined. Manager Paul Lambert called on Jores Okore, the Denmark centre back, for the first time since September 2013.
Southampton counterpart Koeman had taken heed of the defensive problems besetting Villa by bringing in the more offensively minded Shane Long in place of midfielder Jack Cork and asking him to play close to Graziano Pelle, with Dusan Tadic and Sadio Mane in the wide positions.
So it was hardly a surprise that Southampton should dominate the opening stages, taking every opportunity to bring the full-backs, Ryan Bertrand and Clyne, into play along the flanks, seeking to create space for their attacking quartet to test Villa’s organisation.
A minute’s applause in memory of the 21 victims of the Birmingham pub bombings some 40 years ago marked the 21st minute, at which point Villa could at least reflect that Southampton had not yet created a clear chance, although both Victor Wanyama and Mane had seen efforts sail over the bar. Tadic found Long with a nice pass but Ciaran Clark denied the former West Bromwich Albion striker with a well-timed tackle.
Southampton’s confidence in playing high up the pitch did leave them exposed whenever Villa managed to break out, and the pace of Agbonlahor and Charles N’Zogbia was clearly a threat, so the goal that lifted what had been a subdued atmosphere among the home fans was not exactly out of the blue. It came as might have been predicted, as a Southampton attack broke down with Clark punting the ball forward.
Agbonlahor hared off in pursuit and was going to reach the ball ahead of the nearest defender in any case and get in a shot at Fraser Forster. In the event, the England goalkeeper made it rather easy for him, rushing out of his penalty area but failing to get near the ball and allowing the Villa striker the luxury of an unguarded net. The goal was Agbonlahor’s third of the season and only Villa’s second in eight Premier League matches. The Holte End’s reaction must have been as much surprise as jubilation.
The question now, having been pipped at the death by Tottenham after leading in their last home game, was whether Villa could protect their advantage. They needed their goalkeeper, Brad Guzan, almost immediately in that regard, the American diving to his left to push Mane’s shot wide of the post.
Half-time arrived with Villa still in front, after which N’Zogbia might have increased their lead within a minute had his shot, struck from close range in a crowded box, not been blocked by a defender. The pattern of Southampton dominance resumed, yet the pass or cross that would unlock a Villa defence in which Okore looked strong continued to elude them.
Koeman’s side tried to stay patient, probing away for the opening that, on form, it seemed inevitable would come. Villa, though, found ways to keep their opponents at bay and there was a hint of frustration as Wanyama was booked for taking Tom Cleverley’s legs from under him.
Villa swapped N’Zogbia for Kieran Richardson, the former having picked up an injury. Not that they were creating anything much, save for the odd breakaway. Lambert tried to remedy that, introducing Darren Bent in place of Carlos Sanchez as the match ticked towards the final 15 minutes.
The Southampton fans urged more effort from their players. They gasped when Pelle somehow headed the ball over the bar from close range, although he was offside anyway. Then Villa had a great opportunity to seal the win, Andreas Weimann breaking clear down the middle and continuing his run after feeding Agbonlahor on the right. The ball came back to him but he blazed over the top.
Weimann held his head in his hands, although he will have felt worse still moments later when Villa’s resolve was finally broken. Bertrand’s run down the left had the home side backpeddling frantically and his cross flew low across the penalty area for his fellow full-back, Clyne, to sidefoot powerfully into the net.
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Guzan; Hutton, Okore, Clark, Cissokho; Westwood, Sanchez; Weimann, N’Zogbia, Cleverley; Agbonlahor.
Substitutes not used: Bacuna, Cole, Richardson, Bent, Given (gk), Lowton, Grealish.
Southampton (4-2-3-1): Forster; Clyne, Fonte, Alderweireld, Bertrand; Wanyama, Schneiderlin; Tadic, Long, Mane; Pelle.
Substitutes not used: K Davis (gk), Yoshida, Gardos, Cork, Mayuka, Reed, Targett.
Referee: Phil Dowd (Staffordshire).Reuse content