Heskey heads Villain the right direction

Aston Villa 2 West Bromwich Albion 1: Ex-Anfield striker stirs happier memories for Houllier as Di Matteo suffers
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The Independent Football

Gérard Houllier was not about to admit it, but this vital victory for Villa must have made him quite emotional as he thought back to his Anfield days. Emile Heskey was essentially his match-winner. Fancy that, after all those years his old Liverpool striker eventually coming good for him.

Blimey, how this was needed. Not just for the three points which broke a run of three defeats and hauled Villa up to 13th, but for the manager.The week began with the Villa fans accusing Houllier of ignoring them as he waved to the Liverpool fans on his return there, and also berating him for his ill-advised "If we had to lose 3-0 I'm glad it was against them" quip. It ended with the Villa fans celebrating a derby success.

"The defeat to Liverpool hurt," said Houllier, keen to re-emphasise how much he cared. "There is a feeling of relief. We were a bit shaky at times, but I must say I was pleased with the attitude. It wasn't easy for the players after the bad patch."

In truth, Villa were anything but impressive as they hauled themselves out of it, withstanding a late rally just as they had weathered an early onslaught. But with players still coming back from injury there was plenty of promise to take into a Christmas period which features Spurs, Chelsea and Manchester City. Houllier showed he means action by dropping Richard Dunne yesterday.

Neither was this disastrous for West Bromwich, despite them remaining winless in the nine Premier League games they have played against their neighbours. "I was very pleased with the first half – it was difficult to see them score really," said their manager, Roberto Di Matteo. "We deserved more than we got today. We feel hard done by."

Indeed, Di Matteo has every right to long wonder how his side were down after 25 minutes, such had been their domination. The visiting five-man midfield were enjoying the freedom of Villa Park and chances fell for Chris Brunt, Paul Scharner and Marc-Antoine Fortuné. But it was the extraordinary Somen Tchoyi who came closest.

The Cameroonian is built like a centre-half, but is in fact a fleet-footed winger. In the 17th minute, with some scintillating footwork, he went past defender after defender, before beating James Collins twice and curling a left-footer past the bewildered Brad Friedel. The sound of the rattling crossbar denied Tchoyi a third cracker in as many games and Villa were somehow still level. Withineight minutes they had turned this undeserved parity into a lead.

The mistake came from Graham Dorrans in the Albion midfield, losing the ball from a throw-in and allowing Marc Albrighton to take it to the byline. His cross was flicked on by Ashley Young and Stewart Downing beat Gonzalo Jara to the far post to squeeze the ball home. It was the England man's sixth goal of a campaign in which he has been one of Villa's few notable performers.

Shaken, Albion were only partiallystirred and the confidence seeped from their legs and the zip abandoned their play. James Morrison did blaze one opportunity wide, but by the second half the narrative had flip-flopped. Young began to wield his influence, the captain of the day at least edging towards his irresistible best. Heskey should have turned in one Young centre, although his time was coming.

In the 80th minute, Albrighton crossed and Heskey nodded in from close range after a James Collins flick across goal. It appeared slightly fortuitous but was warranted. He had not played for a month after knee surgery, but his work both in attack and defence was tireless.

Villa could certainly have done with his size in the final stages when Paul Scharner towered high to head in Brunt's corner. It set up a tense finish, and when Thomas ran through nerves were pinging all around the famous stadium. But he fired over and Villa – and yes, Houllier – could at last breathe easier.

Substitutes: Aston Villa: Reo-Coker for Bannan (73), Delfouneso for Heskey (83), Herd for Albrighton (90). West Bromwich: Miller for Morrison (75), Cox for Fortuné (86), Reid for Jara (87).

Bookings: West Bromwich: Jara, Thomas.

Attendance: 36,745

Referee: Mark Halsey

Man of the match: A Young