Hitzlsperger strikes bargaining position

Portsmouth 1 Aston Villa 2
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The Independent Online

While Aston Villa boss David O'Leary waxed lyrical about the problems facing his financially-cautious club, Portsmouth remained tight-lipped about their rapid deterioration this season.

While Aston Villa boss David O'Leary waxed lyrical about the problems facing his financially-cautious club, Portsmouth remained tight-lipped about their rapid deterioration this season.

But O'Leary, having finally cajoled Aston Villa back into the top half of the table, insisted: "I think I'm doing a really good job here in the circumstances."

Thomas Hitzlsperger's thumping late shot earned Villa only their second away win of the season at Fratton Park. It was his even later winner which clinched victory by an identical margin at Bolton in mid-November.

But Villa finished sixth in the Premiership last term and had they won their last two games against Southampton and Manchester United they would have pipped Liverpool for a Champions League slot - a sure recipe for over-expectation.

O'Leary knows it, but with little money in the Villa pot to spend, he admits: "There was never any real substance behind that expectation. You have only got to look to see the teams who are spending around to get into Europe and you can see how hard it is for us.

"It is not too frustrating because I knew the situation when I came here. I accept what is being done and although I don't have control over the money I can understand why it is the way it is here."

O'Leary is usually depicted as the biggest critic of Villa supremo Doug Ellis' constant penny-pinching.

He denies it however, although he admits he has to develop young players and bring in a few bargain-buys this summer to keep the club competitive.

"Anything else would be a gamble," he said. "Should we take it anyway? That's not for me to say. I'll let others answer that question."

But O'Leary admits he will have to let match-winning substitute Hitzlsperger go if his new contract demands are too high, as his deal expires in the summer. Bayern Munich are said to want the midfielder back in his native Germany but Villa's manager said: "I want to keep him because you can see what he is liable to do.

"But the problem will come if his advisers ask for unrealistic money that we can't afford. This really should have been settled long ago."

And O'Leary believes Colombian striker Juan Pablo Angel could hold the key to his aim of a big finish to the season.

The Colombian marksman has started scoring goals again but with two penalty misses at Fulham recently he is still only on seven for the campaign - after 23 last term.

"When you've done that the expectation is very high," said O'Leary.

"I really don't know what the difference is between last season and this with him. He is working hard and he's there all the time but like any forward who is banging them in, his confidence will grow.

"He cost £9million and when that is the case you've got to have a certain ratio of goals in an attacking side."

Villa should soon have Darius Vassell and Carlton Cole back from injuries to boost their attack and O'Leary said: "We are coming up at last to a clutch of games in which we are capable of picking up a lot of points. It has been tough just lately against Manchester United twice, Chelsea and Arsenal."

Angel's mere presence in the six-yard box at Fratton Park on Saturday was enough to panic Pompey's normally-reliable skipper Arjan de Zeeuw into jabbing in Luke Moore's cross for a 17th minute own-goal.

Portsmouth, who have now taken just four points from the last 24 available, equalised just six minutes later when a soft penalty award for a collision between Steve Stone and Villa's Gareth Barry led to Aiyegbeni Yakubu's 14th goal of the season.

They could have won it before half-time with inspirational Patrik Berger hitting the bar and Yakubu a post but it was Villa who took charge in the second half, leading to Hitzlsperger's volleyed winner after Angel, the provider, had headed against the crossbar.

For some reason, Pompey's reluctant manager Velimir Zajec chose to announce, just before the match, what we all knew already - his wish to return to the role of executive director at the end of the season.

He has also reiterated Yakubu is likely to be sold then "to a big club" and confirmed first-team coach Joe Jordan will have his contract extended at the same time, but it doesn't mean the Scot will be promoted to the team manager's job.

Chairman Milan Mandaric still hankers to appoint Gordon Strachan, the former Southampton boss who turned him down in December, but in the mean time it is Jordan who has to deliver the vocal verdicts on the team's display.

He was virtually at a loss for words on Saturday apart from saying "We played well and should have won."

He also criticised the defending which allowed substitute Hitzlsperger enough scope to tee up Angel's pass before drilling home in the 73rd minute, but what will concern him most is that with Portsmouth still only ten points above the bottom three and down to 14th place, trips to Manchester United and Arsenal come next.

Fratton Park no longer looks a fortress after six defeats already this season and winger Stone, back after hamstring trouble to face the Villa club who gave him away three years ago, admitted: "It is a bad result because there are some tough games to come and we don't want to be looking anxiously over our shoulders."

Goals: De Zeeuw og (17) 0-1; Yakubu pen (24) 1-1; Hitzlsperger (73) 1-2.

Portsmouth (4-4-2): Chalkias; Cissé, Stefanovic, De Zeeuw, Taylor; Stone, Skopelitis (Fuller, 77), Hughes, Berger; Yakubu (LuaLua, 66), Kamara. Substitutes not used: Ashdown (gk), Primus, Mezague.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; De la Cruz, Mellberg, Ridgewell, Samuel; Solano (Davis, 75), Hendrie (Hitzlsperger, 53), Djemba-Djemba, Barry; Angel, Moore (Berson, 90). Substitutes not used: Postma (gk), Laursen.

Referee: D Gallagher (Oxfordshire).

Booked: Portsmouth Hughes, Stefanovic. Aston Villa Ridgewell.

Man of the match: Hitzlsperger.

Attendance: 20,160.

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