West Bromwich Albion arrived here today looking to emphasise their newly-acquired status as Midlands' football's top dogs – and they very nearly rubbed Aston Villa's noses in it. Leading through Shane Long's 51st-minute goal, it took a late strike from Darren Bent to earn Paul Lambert's team a point.
It was a point that Villa deserved on the basis of their vibrant first-half showing, and came as Bent proved a different kind of point. The England striker began on the bench as Lambert started with Christian Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor in attack, but he came on for the former midway through the second period and duly provided a timely reminder of his predatory powers with a close-range finish in the 80th minute.
After Ron Vlaar had nodded on a Barry Bannan corner, Ciaran Clark had a shot blocked and the ball ran to Bent who applied an impeccable finish, sending a cool volley inside the far post.
Bent later told a Sky interviewer he had endured "a difficult couple of weeks", with losing the captaincy and then his starting place, Lambert preferred to focus on the striker's goal. "It was a world-class finish, that is what he does."
The watching England manager, Roy Hodgson, may need some convincing about Bent, who has yet to feature in his squad, but Lambert stressed that "[Bent] has got nothing to prove to me. I know what he can do."
Bent's goal denied Albion a second successive victory at Villa Park, and stopped them climbing to third in the table. As for Villa, they sit 15th, with just one Premier League win so far, but there were more encouraging signs after last Tuesday's 4-2 victory at Manchester City in the Capital One Cup.
Lambert's template seems to be young and hungry and their starting XI featured six players aged 23 or under and just one survivor, Agbonlahor, from this corresponding fixture last term. Villa were bright and positive in the first period, their best work coming from the Australian Brett Holman, roaming dangerously behind the strikers. He nearly provided a spectacular opening goal after 25 minutes, launching a half-volley fiercely goalwards from 30 yards that would have dipped under the crossbar but for an magnificent save by Ben Foster.
Foster thwarted the midfielder again before the break, throwing up a hand to claw away the ball after Holman, bursting forward on to Marc Albrighton's crossfield pass, had seen his strike deflect off Billy Jones.
The Albion goalkeeper had a shaky night against Liverpool last Wednesday but earned the praise of his manager, Steve Clarke, here. "He made one save in the first half off the deflected shot that was unbelievable," said the Scot. Albion had another let-off soon after when Benteke robbed Gareth McAuley out on the touchline, came inside but then shot high over the crossbar.
At that point all Albion had to show for their efforts was an early flurry when Long fluffed a close-range header and referee Anthony Taylor ignored a reasonable penalty shout when Goran Popov's cross came off Albrighton's arm. By half-time, moreover, they had lost two players to injury as captain Chris Brunt and full-back Jones limped off with hamstring and knee problems, to be replaced by Graham Dorrans and Gabriel Tamas.
Yet six minutes after the restart the visitors were in front. Long had just seen a headed goal ruled offside when he struck. It was a goal Villa captain Vlaar will not enjoy revisiting as he got to James Morrison's low cross first but swiped weakly at the ball and simply knocked it on to Long who tapped in.
At the other end Benteke's unhappy afternoon continued when he failed to knock in a loose ball in the six-yard box and before long, on came Bent to make his decisive contribution.
"The response was great, especially after 120 minutes the other night," said Lambert. Either side might have won it after that. West Brom substitute Romelu Lukaku saw a deflected shot shave the far post and also tested Brad Guzan at his near post. In between Bent curled just over.
"The players were disappointed to come to Villa and only get a point," said Clarke, "that speaks volumes for the way the club is moving." Villa are on the right track too on this evidence.
Subs: Aston Villa: N'Zogbia 5 (Albrighton, 66), Bent 6 (Benteke, 68) Bannan (Delph 71).
West Bromwich Albion: Dorrans 5 (Brunt, 39), Tamas 6 (Jones 45), Lukaku 6 (Long, 72). Booked: Aston Villa Delph.
Man of the match Holman.
Match rating 7/10.
Possession: Aston Villa 57%. West Brom 43%.
Attempts on target: Aston Villa 8. West Brom 7.
Referee: Anthony Taylor (Manchester).