Misfiring Villa lack finishing finesse

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The Independent Football

The clamour for Doug Ellis to let John Gregory loose with his cheque book will only grow louder after Villa's latest failure to unlock a well-organised defence left them to reflect on another couple of points that will be missing when the final reckoning is done.

The clamour for Doug Ellis to let John Gregory loose with his cheque book will only grow louder after Villa's latest failure to unlock a well-organised defence left them to reflect on another couple of points that will be missing when the final reckoning is done.

The veteran chairman still cherishes plans to bring the Champions' League to his developing stadium, but the longer he holds back from investing more money in the team the more difficult it will become for Gregory to fulfil that ambition.

Ellis is understandably reluctant to allow funds to be released while the future of the transfer system remains unsure, but if he needed more evidence of where his side is falling short then it was plainly visible yesterday as Villa misfired again when it mattered most.

The match, dominated by strong defences at both ends of the field, was not exactly awash with chances, but one felt if Villa had a striker of superior technical quality they might have done better. Julian Joachim, for all his thrilling pace, lacks both the touch and the vision to be genuinely top class, while Dion Dublin looks to be suffering from a lack of competition.

"It is not healthy to have only two strikers to pick from and it was obvious today that we need someone else," Gregory said. "In other games I've complained that we failed to score enough, but today we failed to score at all.

"The frustrating thing is that we are probably only a top-quality striker away from being a top-three side, which is why I hope the chairman will back me up if I want to go for someone who fits that description. We have the money from the sale of Ugo Ehiogu so I'd like to think I have a few bob to spend."

Joachim was found wanting on at least three occasions when his speed took him into promising positions, although the best move of the first half ended with Lee Hendrie bringing a fingertip save from Thomas Sorensen after Joachim had knocked down Alpay's chip.

Dublin produced one decent effort, flicking the ball only just over the bar from George Boateng's cross, but was so ineffective generally that Gregory took him off 20 minutes from time, replacing him with the rookie Darius Vassell. Gilles de Bilde, on loan from Sheffield Wednesday, is so far reckoned fit enough only for emergencies.

Not that Sunderland should be considered an easy touch. Tightly organised and fiercely committed, they defended well.

Indeed, Peter Reid had some justification in arguing that his side would not have been unworthy winners. Although Villa enjoyed the larger share of possession, the best chances fell to Sunderland, Kevin Phillips - one of the strikers Gregory openly covets - hitting the bar, Niall Quinn missing by inches when he stabbed at a Michael Gray cross and the impressive Kevin Kilbane drawing a fine save from David James.

Villa's best opportunity to win came during a frantic last five minutes, when the substitute referee Rob Styles, who had taken over after 30 minutes when Peter Jones suffered a calf injury, made a series of decisions that invited Villa to score.

Twice he allowed Villa to retake free kicks they had botched by taking them quickly. On another occasion he punished Alex Rae just outside the box for what appeared to be a legitimate challenge. He then increased the pressure on the Sunderland defence by pushing another kick forward by 10 yards, when Phillips barged Merson and complained about being penalised. In neither instance, however, did Villa have the ability to capitalise, as Doug Ellis will be reminded next time he and Gregory meet.

Aston Villa (3-5-2): James; Alpay, Southgate, Barry; Stone, Merson, Taylor, Hendrie (Boateng 73), Wright; Dublin (Vassell 70), Joachim. Substitutes not used: De Bilde, Samuel, Enckelman (gk).

Sunderland (4-4-2): Sorensen; Makin, Thome, Craddock, Gray; Kilbane, Williams, Rae, Arca; Quinn, Phillips (Hutchison 90). Substitutes not used: Dichio, Thirlwell, Reddy, Macho.

Referee: P Jones (Loughborough), replaced by R Styles (Waterlooville), 29.

Bookings: Aston Villa: Alpay. Sunderland: Rae, Phillips, Arca.

Man of the match: Kilbane.

Attendance: 27,215.

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