Stoke, already congratulating themselves on their best position at Christmas for 37 years, could not have improved on eighth place in the Premier League with victory last night but were left wondering whether a goal-line camera might have turned one point into three after a Marc Wilson header hit the underside of the bar before being cleared to safety.
In a match always likely to be settled by a set-piece, Wilson hit the woodwork when Villa – who have conceded nine goals from corners this season – left him unmarked to attack Brad Guzan's goal from Matthew Etherington's corner with 20 minutes left. Had the ball fallen to earth it would almost certainly have crossed the line but Gabriel Agbonlahor was in the right position to keep it out with his chest and referee Mark Clattenburg dismissed Stoke's claim for a goal.
The Villa manager, Alex McLeish, felt his side had played so well against a Stoke team intent on exploiting their weakness – even with Peter Crouch still ruled out by a virus – that they deserved a verdict in their favour but insisted he would have welcomed the definitive ruling that goal-line technology would have offered.
"I have always been an advocate of bringing in the technology but it would have been a travesty if we had lost the game tonight," he said. "Stoke are a massive threat from throw-ins, free-kicks and corners but my players were excellent. They were up for the battles, the 50-50s and Agbonlahor had the composure when it mattered."
Villa's defenders were not allowed to rest all evening after the Premier League's set-piece kings had won their first corner after 17 seconds and though they had only one more to defend in the first 25 minutes – from which Robert Huth headed over – Stoke are no less potent at throw-ins and free-kicks and Guzan was relieved to see another effort from the airborne Huth flash past the outside of his right-hand post as the contest entered its second quarter. Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, complimented the Villa defence in which, he said, "the two centre-backs, [Richard] Dunne and [James] Collins, were outstanding."
Yet the match was not all about Stoke laying siege to the visitors' goal. Villa, who had hinted in defeat against Arsenal last week that improvement might be soon coming after a dismal run of eight points in 10 matches, did not lack invention going forward. All they were short of, in McLeish's words, was "subtlety and finesse" near goal, although in this respect they were not helped when Emile Heskey's return after an Achilles problem had to be curtailed at half-time, while Darren Bent's anticipated return from a thigh injury has been delayed again.
Yet they had the chances to register a first away win over Stoke since 1984. Marc Albrighton wasted one with a high, deep cross that might have suited Heskey but was of little use to Agbonlahor. Then Charles N'Zogbia cut inside Jonathan Woodgate to give himself a clear view of Thomas Sorensen's goal but dragged his shot wide.
Substitutes: Stoke City Delap 6 (Palacios, 67), Pennant 6 (Woodgate, 70). Aston Villa Delfouneso 6 (Heskey, h-t).
Booked: Stoke Huth, Whitehead, Delap.
Man of the match Petrov.
Attempts on target Stoke 2 Aston Villa 4.
Referee M Clattenburg (Tyne & Wear).
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