Villa’s predicament is beginning to look serious now, as Southampton maintained their useful knack of taking points off their relegation rivals – indeed, they have taken six of their 21 off Villa.
The margin may have been closer than at St Mary’s in September, where Villa’s porous defence leaked four of the 42 that have flown past them so far, but it was no less painful for that.
Yet it was impossible not to feel sympathy for Paul Lambert’s team, who went behind to a contentious first-half penalty and threw every ounce of effort and will into trying to avoid an 11th defeat of the season. They ended the afternoon in the bottom three, with only one win and one goal in their last five home matches and 10 points only from their last 12 games all told.
The 34th-minute incident that ultimately decided the match will be another to feed into the diving debate after Enda Stevens was judged by referee Mark Halsey to have brought down Jay Rodriguez. The Villa defender went to tackle the Southampton striker and Rodriguez seemed to go down in anticipation. If there was contact he was already on the floor when it took place.
“It is not a penalty,” Lambert declared categorically afterwards. “I’ve had a chat with Mark and really he has guessed at it and got it wrong. He is a good referee but when he sees that he will be embarrassed.
“I can’t fault the players in any way. In the second half they gave everything did not deserve to lose. But you need the referee in big moments to get it right.”
Lambert seemed bemused to learn of his Southampton counterpart’s take on the decision. “We don’t tolerate diving at Southampton but it was not a dive,” Nigel Adkins said. “There was no contact. Jay saw the boy’s leg come across and he has taken evasive action. If he hadn’t there would have been contact.”
Southampton arguably deserved the lead, having made the brighter start. Rodriguez himself missed an earlier opportunity to put them in front when he headed a Jason Puncheon cross wide. Yet it was rough on Lambert’s side, who had weathered the early storm after all.
Villa, again without the injured Darren Bent and with Gabriel Agbonlahor not fit enough yet to start, tried everything and if their inexperience showed it was only in that they lacked the authority in the centre of midfield that Stiliyan Petrov used to provide.
Yet their effort was unceasing. If criticism could be levelled, perhaps the finishing of Christian Benteke might be questioned. The young striker twice missed an unguarded goal and once or twice you felt he should have made Artur Boruc work, although the Southampton goalkeeper did need to scramble one header round the post.
Boruc needed to earn his money at other moments, notably saving from Stevens early in the second half. The Villa fans remained right behind their team and thought they had been rewarded a minute from time when Nathan Baker climbed to meet a Barry Bannan corner, but the defender’s header thudded against the bar.
Aston Villa (4-2-3-1): Guzan; Lowton, Clark, Baker, Stevens; Delph, Westwood (Bowery, 77); N’Zogbia (Agbonlahor, 62), Holman (Bannan, h-t), Weimann; Benteke..
Southampton (4-4-2): Boruc; Clyne, Yoshida, Hooiveld, Shaw (De Ridder, 86); Puncheon (S Davis, 81), Cork, Schneiderlin, Ramirez (Fox, 76); Lambert, Rodriguez.
Referee: Mark Halsey.
Man of the match: Puncheon (Southampton)
Match rating: 7/10