Merson makes Villa's day

Gregory's boys miss penalties but just squeeze home
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The Independent Football

Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek made two penalty saves and his team successfully converted one, but after a match of tension it was Aston Villa's manager, JohnGregory, who found relief - perhaps still only temporary - from the threat of the sack.

Sheffield Wednesday goalkeeper Pavel Srnicek made two penalty saves and his team successfully converted one, but after a match of tension it was Aston Villa's manager, JohnGregory, who found relief - perhaps still only temporary - from the threat of the sack.

Before he knew that Villa might be reinstated in the Worthington Cup because West Ham had fielded an ineligible player, Gregory had insisted that being eliminated by way of another missed penalty by Gareth Southgate was insignificant by comparison with the outcome of yesterday's match against the most forlorn club in the Premiership. Yet the cup defeat can have done nothing to help morale.

Gregory's counterpart, Danny Wilson, had taken quite the opposite view about the importance of cup football. His team's narrow FA Cup win over Bristol City a week ago was seen by him as "perhaps the turning point". It would still take a nifty U-turn of fortune to save them from relegation.

As for Villa's official attitude to West Ham's administrative error in playing Manny Omoyimni, who had twice appeared for Gillingham in the Worthington Cup this season while on loan, their chairman, Doug Ellis, yesterday remained insistent that although he was reluctant to penalise "my friends at Upton Park", he was convinced that they should be disqualified.

Yesterday's central character on the pitch was obviously Benito Carbone, who had spoken provocatively and enthusiastically about what he wanted to achieve against Wednesday, with whom he had so many disagreements in his time with them. Naturally, his every touch was keenly jeered by the fans of his former club. That helped divert attention for Villa. Gareth Barry immediately took advantage, slipping unchallenged through midfield and speeding a 25-yard shot that Srnicek palmed over the bar. Carbone himself demanded possession at every opportunity and, surprisingly, Wednesday allowed him room to develop his ideas. Not only that, Srnicek virtually invited him to do his worst when clearing directly to his feet. Carbone snapped a shot back towards the ashamed goalkeeper, who managed to push the ball away, but his mistake was one of only many bedevilling Wednesday's defence.

None of those errors, nor the amount of pressure Villa exerted, made much difference to the first significant moment when, after 20 minutes, Ian Taylor tripped Danny Sonner with the referee too close to miss it. So from one of their rare attacks, Wednesday scored, albeit indirectly, Gilles de Bilde relishing the penalty chance. The disgusted look on Ellis' face in the directors' box as the ball went in said everything.

The chairman's disposition and that of the fans grew worse when Villa were offered the chance to recover as Dion Dublin, in trying to get through a crowded penalty area, hit the ball against Alan Quinn's arm. Another penalty. Dublin took a casual stroll towards the ball and struck it reasonably well. Nevertheless, Srnicek saved with a superb dive.

Once Alan Wright had limped off, Villa had Julian Joachim alongside Dublin with Carbone in a free supporting role and Taylor frequently adding his strength to the attack. Yet their combined finishing effort was unimpressive. Des Walker and Emerson Thome restricted Dublin to hopeful headers, but Wednesday still found themselves defending within 30 yards of the goal and breaking away only occasionally.

Not that Wednesday seemed concerned about adding to their score. Defending the lead was priority, and by keeping Villa from attacking on the flanks, they subdued the aerial threat. They also did well to keep Paul Merson outside the penalty area. Villa became increasingly frustrated and ever closer to another embarrassing result.

Finally Merson took control. Possibly bearing in mind their earlier work on keeping him at bay, Wednesday underestimated his shooting ability from long distance. Seeing his way blocked, Merson aimed a shot round Srnicek, whose dive could not prevent the equalising goal. Suddenly Villa seemed about to claim the match. Carbone clouted the foot of the post with a fine free-kick and then...another penalty. Merson, now full of confidence, stepped up and drove what appeared to be a well-struck penalty, but again the remarkable Srnicek made an astonishing save.

Srnicek's performance alone merited a point, but Merson was determined to recompense for what was hardly a penalty miss, more a wonderful denial. Either way, after 82 minutes he ran from deep against receding defenders and swung a centre towards the far post. Taylor had run in parallel on the other side of the pitch and dived to head in Villa's face-saving and perhaps manager-saving goal.

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