A crucial week in Aston Villa’s season began promisingly last night with a much improved performance bringing a valuable Premier League point that looked like being three until the last 10 minutes.
Despite having begun the game in the bottom two after Reading’s victory, they did not look a relegation team.
On Tuesday they must retrieve a 3-1 deficit following a shocking night at Bradford City in the first leg of the Capital One Cup semi-final and only three days later comes a ticklish FA Cup tie at Millwall.
These three games, defining the shape of Paul Lambert’s first season in charge, have all been chosen for live television coverage and the evidence for yesterday evening’s audience was that there is life in the old club yet.
It was the 160th match in the oldest West Midlands derby, the first League game having taken place on exactly the same day in the inaugural Football League season of 1887-8. The other anniversary was more sombre, yesterday marking 11 years since the death of Albion’s goalscoring hero Jeff Astle; there was also a minute’s applause for another former England forward revered in these parts, Derek “The Tank” Kevan, who died this month.
Not untypically of the modern Premier League, the club’s current leading scorer is a Belgian, Romelu Lukaku, who went into the game with six of their last ten League goals to his name, and who is enjoying his stint on loan from Chelsea so much he wants to stay next season as well.
Villa had their captain Ron Vlaar back as one of three centre-halves in the visitors’ defence, having not played since November because of a calf injury and been badly missed in the interim.
Vlaar had the younger Ciaran Clark and Nathan Baker alongside him but only briefly, as within five minutes the latter pulled up as Peter Odemwingie went past him and had to be replaced by Eric Lichaj, with Matt Lowton moving from wing-back to the centre.
The change hardly disrupted Villa, however, and with little more than half an hour played, the combination of Benteke’s power and Gabriel Agbonlahor’s pace had brought them a two-goal lead. There seemed to be nothing on when Benteke received the ball in the 11th minute from Charles N’Zogbia, who was out on the left touchline, but he turned inside and hit a fierce shot from fully 25 yards into the far corner of the net.
Playing on the break in defence of a lead suits Agbonlahor perfectly and 20 minutes later he picked up another N’Zogbia pass – this time from the right – veered inside Gareth McAuley and caught Ben Foster on the wrong foot with a low drive.
Were it not for a better effort from Foster in denying Lichaj, there would have been a third goal before the interval. Once again the provider was N’Zogbia, sneaking along the byline and cutting the ball back for Lichaj.
Albion, lacking any width down the left, found an excuse to bring on Jerome Thomas in that position when the holding midfielder Claudio Jacob, only just back from injury, was forced off with a shoulder injury. At least their wild shooting improved, Graham Dorrans sending a drive just wide and Brad Guzan having to hold Chris Brunt’s effort.
That one was straight at him but when Brunt hit another 20-yarder early in the second half, the ball flew out of reach just inside a post. Lukaku, taking a square pass from Odemwingie, supplied an unselfish assist by setting Brunt up perfectly.
It was a proper derby by that stage, with the referee kept busy and the home crowd fully behind Albion after their recent travails but Villa threatening on the break with Agbonlahor’s speedy runs, bringing a good save from Foster.
Odemwingie missed two good chances but became the saviour of a point and local pride when McAuley headed down a corner for him to hook in.
West Bromwich: (4-2-3-1): Foster; Jones, McAuley, Olsson, Ridgewell; Dorrans (Rosenberg, 82), Yacob (Thomas, 35); Odemwingie, Morrison, Brunt (Thorne, 90); Lukaku.
Aston Villa: (5-3-2): Guzan; Lowton, Vlaar, Baker (Lichaj, 5), Clark, Bennett; Westwood, Delph (Bannan, 52), N’Zogbia (Holman, 66); Benteke, Agbonlahor.
Referee: Lee Probert.
Man of the match: Agbonlahor (Aston Villa)
Match rating: 8/10