Just as Martin O'Neill had Aston Villa's supporters eating out of his hand once more, along came a collapse so dramatic and unexpected that he became a bigger centre of attention than ever on his 57th birthday.
The manager, unusually under fire from sections of the club's support for identifying the breaking of the Big Four monopoly as a more important target this season than winning silverware, could well have done without this particular Sunday being the one on which Stoke City should deprive them of two vital points with two goals in the final three minutes.
O'Neill had already committed some £15,000 of club money on a dinner to compensate fans disappointed at travelling to Moscow last week and seeing a shadow side exit the Uefa Cup. Maybe a club shop voucher and some claret and blue balloons will have to be tossed into a goodie bag now to placate them after their side's miserable home run stretched to three wins in 12 games.
One moment, Villa were visualising moving a point behind second place and eight clear of Arsenal. The next, they were reflecting on how they had taken only one point out of six from these opponents and been hurt by last-minute goals from them at home and away. They even have fewer home League wins this season than Stoke.
"We were totally devastated in the dressing room afterwards," O'Neillsaid. "We were totally controlling the game and should have seen it through even after conceding one; top-four sides would have done and we'll see at the end of the season whether we are one. For the first time, I detected some over-confidence from us and it's particularly galling that we haven't won."
The 'Aston Eight' – the players O'Neill left to rest at home from lastweek's second leg against CSKA Moscow – returned en bloc to the starting line-up but it was nevertheless a fitful performance against the Premier League's worst travellers.
Villa's second-half attempts to close the game out were scrappy and their earlier efforts, although neat and sustained, were less than cutting edge.
Danny Higginbotham had to clear from near the line after Thomas Sorensen had lost Luke Young's low cross under pressure from Gabby Agbonlahor but there was not much else of note once Zat Knight had glanced James Milner's cross powerfully over with his head.
Stoke's defending was disciplined, Sorensen handling cleanly against the team for whom he played 158 times up to last summer and Ibrahima Sonko producing one vital intervention by stretching to prevent Agbonlahor touching in Gareth Barry's centre.
The first time the visitors switched off, it cost them dear. Milner, making his 200th club career appearance, threaded a ball to the edge of the area, where Higginbotham stood off and Stiliyan Petrov, having failed to score a League goal since April, took one touch to control and another to drill home an angled right-foot shot.
Sorensen did not reappear after half-time because of sickness and a Stoke side uncharacteristically lining up in a 3-5-2 formation for the first 54 minutes seemed sunk when the Villa substitute John Carew stuck out a foot to meet Petrov's pass and sent a shot arcing freakishly over Steve Simonsen for what appeared to be the killer second 11 minutes from time.
Stoke had fired a couple of warning shots through Mamady Sidibe and Ricardo Fuller and a third, louder still, thudded off the boot of the substitute Glenn Whelan and against the post.
Hope sprang when Ryan Shawcross headed in James Beattie's cross and salvation came with Whelan cracking in a beauty at the start of stoppage time, again from 25 yards, after Sidibe and Fuller had been crowded out.
"We were very poor in the first half but that was my fault," said Stoke's manager Tony Pulis. "We were much better in the second with our normal 4-4-2 and had five good chances."
Goals: 1-0 Petrov (45); 2-0 Carew (79); 2-1 Shawcross (87); 2-2 Whelan (90).
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Knight, Davies, Luke Young; Milner, Petrov, Barry, Ashley Young; Heskey (Carew, 76), Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Harewood, Delfouneso, Reo-Coker, Shorey, Gardner.
Stoke City (3-5-2): Sorensen (Simonsen, h-t); Wilkinson, Shawcross, Sonko, Higginbotham, Pugh (Fuller, 54); Lawrence, Diao, Amdy Faye (Whelan, 64); Beattie, Sidibe. Substitutes not used: Cort, Cresswell, Kelly, Camara.
Referee: H Webb (Rotherham).
Booked: Aston Villa Ashley Young. Stoke Shawcross.
Man of the match: Petrov.
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