A Champions' League place remains within Aston Villa's grasp but Martin O'Neill's team will have to do better than this if they are to take it. Only an 82nd-minute equaliser rescued a point against a resilient Wolverhampton Wanderers side who are showing they have what it takes to secure Premier League survival.
O'Neill had warned before the match that there are no easy games in the top flight and Wolves proved his point. Having been comprehensively outplayed as Villa made a flying start, Mick McCarthy's team were well worth their point in the end.
Villa must hope that Gabriel Agbonlahor, who has a foot injury, will return soon. Without their leading scorer's pace, too much of the home side's attacking play was one-dimensional. Ashley Young, who must have impressed the watching Fabio Capello with his trickery and penetrating crosses, was always a threat, but when he was not involved Villa too often resorted to speculative high balls aimed at the heads of John Carew and Emile Heskey.
The home crowd's frustration was evident, but O'Neill stressed that his team remain unbeaten in the League this year. "Not every side have played in the Carling Cup final, are in the semi-finals of the FA Cup and are still battling for fourth place in the League with nine games to go," he said. For the first 20 minutes, Villa threatened to run riot. Exploiting gaps as wide as the Aston Expressway between Wolves' defence and midfield, they mounted a succession of sweeping attacks. Stephen Warnock just failed to get on the end of Carew's shot across the face of goal and only a superbly timed tackle by Jody Craddock denied James Milner.
A goal was inevitable, though there was an element of good fortune about it. Young danced past Ronald Zubar and crossed to Carew, who was marginally offside but turned the ball into the net from six yards. Villa were in total command, but it was their opponents who appeared galvanised by the goal. Wolves tightened up in midfield and David Jones, playing just behind Kevin Doyle, the lone striker, started opening up the home defence.
After 22 minutes, Zubar got his foot to Jones' beautifully flighted free-kick and knocked it into the path of Craddock, who scored from close range. Fifteen minutes later, Jones created space for himself on the edge of the penalty area, released Stephen Ward on the left and raced into the penalty area to meet his cross. Milner beat him to it but could only stab the ball into his own net.
Stewart Downing scorned an opportunity to equalise before the break, his downward header from Young's cross bouncing into the turf and over the bar. Carew and Heskey both went close as the home side's pressure mounted in the second half and for the last 20 minutes Villa played with only three men at the back as Richard Dunne, who was struggling with an Achilles problem, was taken off.
O'Neill's substitutions frustrated some of the Villa faithful, who called in vain for Nathan Delfouneso to inject some pace into the attack, but when the equaliser came after 81 minutes it was the two big strikers who played crucial roles. Carew headed Brad Friedel's upfield punt into the path of Heskey, who in turn fed Steve Sidwell. When the midfielder played the ball forward, Carew, who appeared just onside, deflected it into the net.
McCarthy described it as "a fabulous point and a terrific performance" by Wolves, while O'Neill was equally pleased with his team's effort. "The opening 25 minutes was a joy to watch," he said. "Ashley Young was mesmerising, as I thought he was for the whole game. We got a goal in front but we didn't hold the lead for long enough and let Wolves back in the game, although I was delighted with the way we fought back at the end."
Referee: Mark Clattenburg
Man of the match: Young
Match rating: 8/10Reuse content