Mood turns against Houllier after stalemate

Aston Villa 0 Birmingham City 0
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The Independent Football

Later this month, Aston Villa and Birmingham City reconvene to contest a place in the Carling Cup semi-finals. It can scarcely be a less enthralling spectacle than yesterday's Premier League stalemate, which confirmed that Gérard Houllier's honeymoon at Villa Park is over almost before it had begun.

The Frenchman cut a downbeat figure afterwards, reserving his strongest criticism for a player who did not even make it on to the pitch, Stephen Ireland. An £8m signing from Manchester City in August, Ireland is Villa's highest-paid player. Yet after being left out of the starting line-up he was also overlooked in favour of a 20-year-old substitute with four appearances to his name, Barry Bannan, as Houllier strove to freshen up his team's performance.

"Ireland needs to work harder [in games]", the Villa manager said when asked why he had remained on the bench. "He did well against Chelsea but at Sunderland he wasn't good enough for me. The skill is one thing, but you need to compete. We know he's a good player. But I don't want to have players where you say: 'He's a good player but...' If you say: 'He's a good player but doesn't defend, but doesn't run back, but loses too many balls in crucial areas', that's difficult. He needs to get rid of these 'buts'."

Since Ireland is renowned for craft rather than graft, Houllier's analysis of Villa's failings made his lack of involvement all the more damning. "We lacked imagination. The creativity wasn't there. In terms of effort I've nothing to complain about, but overall I'm not happy with what I saw. We know we can play better. Whether it's possible in a derby, I don't know."

Houllier has been in charge for five league games, the same number as Martin O'Neill's temporary successor, Kevin MacDonald. He has presided over one victory whereas MacDonald stepped down with two. This was the former Liverpool manager's opportunity to win over the sceptics. In the event, Villa were on the back foot in the first-half, and though they finished strongly they have now played nearly six hours of league football without scoring.

Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager, was more satisfied after ending a six-game losing run against their neighbours. In April his team dominated at Villa Park before losing to a disputed late penalty. "What do you do? Kill yourself or jump off a bridge?" the Scot asked. "We decided to move on. We'll take a point after what happened last time but one or two of the boys are disappointed we didn't take the chances we had."

McLeish was again frustrated by a refereeing decision over a penalty; this time it was the one not awarded in the first-half when Nigel Reo-Coker appeared to handle. "We haven't had much luck with penalties," McLeish sighed, "so it was no surprise not to see it given."

The best of the few chances came late on, Bannan's 25-yard drive bringing a diving stop from Ben Foster, and Ciaran Clark, a centre-back playing in a midfield over-staffed with holding players, bravely heading over and getting a bloody nose from Foster for his trouble. Birmingham should have led by then, Craig Gardner having two goalbound drives blocked by James Collins and Cameron Jerome failing to pick out Nikola Zigic for what would have been a tap-in.

But even the flashpoints, with Reo-Coker and ex-Villa colleague Gardner twice squaring up, smacked of a phony war. The forthcoming sequel at St Andrew's can only be an improvement.

Man of the match Johnson. Match rating 6/10.

Possession Aston Villa 56% Birmingham 42%.

Shots on target Aston Villa 3 Birmingham 6.

Referee H Webb (South Yorkshire). Att 40,688.