Distin earns redemption to prevent Villa victory

Aston Villa 1 Manchester City 1
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Sylvain Distin, badly at fault for the goal by Juan Pablo Angel which looked likely to earn Aston Villa three precious points towards their push for a place in Europe, scored a late, carbon-copy equaliser to earn Manchester City some breathing space in their efforts to avoid relegation to the Nationwide League.

City were eight minutes away from being stuck on 31 points, a total that 18th-placed Leicester will reach if they win tonight's six-pointer at Leeds. Distin then rose unchallenged to plant a free header into Thomas Sorensen's net following a corner.

Almost an hour earlier, the City captain had jumped with rather less conviction as a near-identical set-piece swung in from the same flag, allowing Angel to put Villa ahead.

Arthur Cox, standing in for Kevin Keegan, who was again absent with a back problem, felt the Frenchman had "redeemed himself" after failing to pick up Villa's South American striker.

For the non-aligned - who included Sven Goran Eriksson, doubtless present alongside Doug Ellis to watch Shaun Wright-Phillips and Jlloyd Samuel cancel one another out - it would have taken far more to redeem a disjointed encounter.

This was a match with an identity crisis. In theory it was vitally important to the prospects of both sides, yet at times the contest was about as animated and cohesive as an end-of-season affair with nothing at stake. The players' attire attested to the role confusion: Samuel, Wright-Phillips and Nicolas Anelka sported gloves, whereas Paulo Wanchope felt sufficiently spring-like to wear a short-sleeved shirt.

Wanchope performed so ineffectually that Cox, the 65-year-old former Derby manager and one-time Villa coach, was asked exactly whose decision it had been to prefer him to Anelka and Robbie Fowler, whose belated introduction gave City much-needed impetus. "It was a joint one by myself and Kevin," he said. "We didn't get the result we were looking for against Fulham with Robbie and Nicolas, and we created more problems that day once Paulo and Jonathan Macken came on."

Keegan is expected back at work tomorrow as City begin their preparations for a must-win fixture at home to the bottom club, Wolves, next Saturday. Their current struggle is all a far cry from when they routed yesterday's opponents 4-1 at Eastlands in September. Since then, David O'Leary has made Villa a far more effective and attractive unit, if perhaps one for whom a position in the top half of the Premiership would be an accurate measure of their worth.

Angel is as important to Villa as Mikael Forssell is to Birmingham City. Barely 24 hours after landing from Peru, where he was on World Cup duty with Colombia, in the 26th minute he climbed to convert Thomas Hitzlsperger's corner for his 14th League goal of the season.

On the rare occasions that City threatened, Olof Mellberg snuffed out the threat. At 0-0 he had slid across, rather as he did when putting Darius Vassell out of England's match in Sweden on Wednesday, to block a goalbound shot by Wright-Phillips.

Villa, despite withdrawing the weary Angel at half-time, should have put the outcome beyond City's reach midway through the second half. David James spilled a typically fierce free-kick by Hitzlsperger, only for Gavin McCann to direct the loose ball high into the Holte End.

City also lived dangerously when Distin handled the ball in the penalty area. The defender was on the blind side of Uriah Rennie, though the referee's assistant was looking straight at him from 10 yards away.

They were moments which Villa came to reflect upon ruefully. With time ebbing away, Michael Tarnat delivered a ball to almost the precise spot from where Angel had struck. Distin, coming round the back of the defence, headed the ball down and into the net. City even scented an undeserved win at the death. Sorensen could only parry Anelka's shot and saved bravely as Fowler lunged at the rebound. In truth, victory would have flattered either team.

Goals: Angel (26) 1-0; Distin (82) 1-1.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen 5; De la Cruz 6, Mellberg 7, Johnsen 6, Samuel 5; Hendrie 5, Hitzlsperger 6, McCann 7, Barry 5; Angel 6 (Crouch 5, h-t), Vassell 5 (L Moore 5, 68). Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Whittingham, Ridgewell.

Manchester City (4-4-2): James 6; Sun Jihai 5, Distin 5, Dunne 4, Tarnat 6; Wright-Phillips 6, Reyna 5 (Sinclair 4, 73), Bosvelt 4, McManaman 4; Wanchope 2 (Anelka 5, 67), Macken 5 (Fowler 5, 67). Substitutes not used: Arason (gk), Barton.

Referee: U Rennie (S Yorkshire) 6.

Bookings: Aston Villa: Samuel. Manchester City: Sun Jihai, Dunne.

Man of the match: Mellberg.

Attendance: 37,602.