Captain Dunne steadies Villa's fast-sinking ship
West Bromwich Albion 0 Aston Villa 0: Republic of Ireland defender returns early from injury to help bale out his troubled team
Sunday 29 April 2012
A point it may only be, but Aston Villa at last have a semblance of momentum. Not just from holding the ground they still have to spare above the bottom three, but also in terms of personnel.
By standing firm in a Midlands derby that was strewn with enough chances to produce several goals, they have chalked off another game on the way to safety and remain three points – and a considerably better goal difference – above the relegation places.
It was a reflection of the increasing anxiety surrounding Villa's league position that Alex McLeish decided to summon back his defensive strongman, Richard Dunne, ahead of schedule after nearly three months out with a broken collarbone. But the under-fire manager was repaid with an inspirational contribution.
The fortunes of Blackburn Rovers and Queen's Park Rangers today will determine how satisfactory a weekend this is for Villa. Their prospects appear all the brighter, though, for the availability of the Republic of Ireland centre-half. Until he allowed Peter Odemwingie to drift free behind him in stoppage time and go desperately close to securing maximum points for West Bromwich Albion, Dunne played as though he had never been away.
More than anyone, he will know this is no time to be grumbling about goalless draws, even if Villa have now managed in a season that is sorely testing the patience as well as the nerves of their fans.
"Dunne is a leader and it was a calculated gamble to play him," said McLeish, who had expected to see him back for only the final two games, against Tottenham Hotspur at home and Norwich City away. "He said he was good to go and I said his presence would be absolutely wonderful. So it proved. He headed everything, read the play and calmed the players down."
Villa may have prevailed on this blustery Hawthorns afternoon, they equally they might have succumbed to a fifth defeat in eight matches in a seriously damaging run in which they have now won only once in 14 attempts.
Mark Clattenburg and his assistant in front of the East Stand will have had an uneasy night's viewing of Match of the Day because, from the appropriate angles, Alan Hutton's 49th-minute handball to deny Albion's former Villa defender Liam Ridgewell was as obvious as it gets. There even seemed to be some intent in the Scot's re-routing of a header over the bar from Graham Dorrans' left-wing corner.
McLeish didn't question Albion's penalty claims but argued with equal justification that Villa might have had two spot-kicks, first when Chris Brunt handled a Hutton cross in the first half, then when the spread-eagled Jonas Olsson blocked Ciaran Clark's close-range shot two minutes from time.
Villa's competitiveness brought them four bookings in the first hour and their initial unease showed only in the ninth minute when Shane Long raced half the length of the pitch in possession before miscuing a shot that Carlos Cuellar clumsily failed to clear. Odemwingie's back-heel was blocked at close quarters by Shay Given, leaving a relieved Cuellar to accept his second opportunity to boot clear.
For the rest of the first half, Villa looked considerably the more likely scorers, with Gabriel Agbonlahor using his 200th career League start to underline why he hasn't netted in the Premier League since November. Twice around the half-hour, he was played clear in the inside-left channel, but allowed Ben Foster to save well each time.
The keeper also had to be alert to gather at the second attempt when Chris Herd swept goalwards from Dunne's excellent pull-back, and also demonstrated good reflexes to thwart Charles N'Zogbia.
Thereafter, Villa's eighth successive game without a victory became a struggle to avoid defeat. Cuellar dived to head off the line from Odemwingie's shot on the turn and Olsson and Jones were narrowly off target late on. Never were the visitors' hearts more in mouths, though, than when Jerome Thomas's deep cross was met on the half-volley by Odemwingie, only for Given to save brilliantly right on the line.
Albion's manager Roy Hodgson, having last season overseen the ending of the club's 26-year wait for a victory against these neighbours, could afford to be magnanimous amid the sharing of the points. His side remain in the top half of the table and he said: "A draw was a fair result. It was a strange 0-0 in as much as there were chances at both ends. Given's save from Odemwingie was quite phenomenal but I'm happy enough with a draw and another clean sheet. We mustn't be greedy... it ensures we will finish above them and we'll save the victory against them until next season."
Maybe he, too, suspects Villa will do just enough.
West Bromwich (4-1-3-2): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Mulumbu (Andrews, 79); Brunt, Dorrans, Thomas; Long (Fortune, 69), Odemwingie.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Given; Hutton, Dunne, Cuellar, Lichaj; N'Zogbia (Gardner, 74), Herd, Clark (Carruthers, 90), Warnock; Agbonlahor, Heskey.
Referee Mark Clattenbury.
Man of the match Dunne (Aston Villa).
Match rating 7/10.
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