This has has never been Aston Villa's favourite ground, for all the claret and blue around the place, but last night at a venue where they had not won a League game for 12 years, an unlucky late own goal from Lucas Neill propelled them to third place in the Premier League. In front of Fabio Capello, who lavished special praise on James Milner earlier in the week, Martin O'Neill's heavily anglicised squad – 13 out of 18 Englishmen yesterday – had an excellent first half, making a number of chances, then fell away for a time but finished strongly, as they often do.
In contrast, West Ham, fifth when Alan Curbishley left in September, are now falling fast with just one success in 12 games. They will be in the bottom three if Manchester City take even one point at West Bromwich today.
Gianfranco Zola's overriding problem is evident from the scoring statistics: the injury-prone Dean Ashton has been able to play only four matches all season but is still joint second in the West Ham charts with two goals.
Carlton Cole, the one man ahead of him, has a mere four and yesterday missed the best chance of the game to add a fifth and salvage a point. Craig Bellamy (also two goals all season) worked much harder than his partner but tended to play down the right and found nobody in the centre to meet his threatening crosses. In the absence of Matthew Etherington, the squad also lacks width. "We didn't play fantastically," O'Neill admitted, "and in the second half I felt West Ham got the upper hand. But we've got pace and ability and good desire. We showed real grit and determination."
In securing Brad Friedel for £2 million, he also made one of the signings of the summer. The American pulled off a series of fine saves, beginning with one from Bellamy early on. Although lively, the game was eminently predictable in that Villa, as they do in away matches, used their pace to counterattack dangerously as the home team went at them.
It took Villa a while to find their rhythm but once they did Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young caused regular problems down the left. In the 27th minute Ashley Young should have scored, when, as at Everton recently, he was the beneficiary from a bad back-pass, this time from Scott Parker. Young went round Robert Green but carried the ball too wide and could only drive it against the far post. Green saved from Gareth Barry and Milner in one classic break and Neill risked conceding a penalty by holding Barry.
Bringing on Hayden Mullins for Parker at the interval, and then Lee Bowyer for Valon Behrami failed to give West Ham any width and when they did manage to cross the ball, neither Matthew Upson, Calum Davenport or Neill could direct their headers on target. Three chances then fell to the previously anonymous Cole, who headed Neill's centre over the bar from barely three yards and was twice foiled at the near post by Friedel.
Villa lost Carlos Cuellar to an injury, which meant Nigel Reo-Coker coming on to a less than seasonal greeting from his former fans. The visitors had not looked like scoring from the start of the second half until Ashley Young cut inside to pull a shot wide with 20 minutes to play. But eight minutes after that, he ran at a retreating defence and fed Milner, whose cross-cum-shot took a deflection off Neill and looped over the unfortunate Green. Friedel then made sure of a sixth away win bysaving from Davenport at close range.
Asked if Villa might even win the League, O'Neill said: "You haven't been drinking have you?" Villa supporters will be this week.
Referee: Mark Halsey
Man of the match: Friedel
Match rating: 7/10Reuse content