March madness threatens Villa's European hope

Stoke City 0 Aston Villa 0
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The Independent Football

Aston Villa fans may be wondering if this will be another season that promises much but, in the end, delivers little. A draw against Stoke at home, when they conceded two late goals, began the unravelling of their Champions' League ambitions last season. They gave themselves nothing to squander yesterday, yet their failure to break down an unashamedly pragmatic opponent leaves them with more ground to make up on fourth place, even with matches in hand, than they might like with the business end of the campaign looming close.

Maybe the disappointment of losing the Carling Cup final is still in their thoughts, even though the FA Cup route to Wembley remains open. Whatever, at no time did they look convincingly like a team with lofty ambitions and Martin O'Neill's peculiar record of never having won a Premier League match in March in four seasons as Villa's manager was only fleetingly under threat.

James Collins had half a chance from a Stewart Downing corner after 17 minutes, then Stiliyan Petrov had Thomas Sorensen scrambling to keep out a swerving shot. Other than that, there was little danger posed to the Stoke goal until James Milner sent a free-kick wide with four minutes left.

Indeed, once Stoke – weary, according to manager Tony Pulis, after three matches in a week – had reached half-time without conceding, they grew in adventure. After Pulis had replaced Tuncay with Ricardo Fuller – to the obvious displeasure of the departing player – Stoke looked the more likely winner. Fuller supplied the game's most exciting moment with a slippery run which deserved better than to end with a scuffed shot. Later, Milner made an important block against Danny Higginbotham, the impressive Richard Dunne a vital tackle on Fuller and Robert Huth went close twice.

Looking for positives, O'Neill identified the resistance to Rory Delap's long throws as something to celebrate, although he was probably less than pleased that Stoke's missile man was permitted no fewer than 20 attempts. "Knowing what to expect and dealing with it are two different things, but I felt we coped pretty well and to come through without conceding from one is a satisfactory outcome," he said.

Pulis dismissed Tuncay's petulance. "He is no different from any other player in that he wants to play and is disappointed when he is taken off," he said. "But I felt both my strikers looked a bit tired." Given that Fuller almost tipped the game in Stoke's favour, the decision was vindicated.

Attendance: 27,598

Referee: Kevin Friend

Man of the match: Dunne

Match rating: 4/10