Vassell spearheads Villa's strike force

Aston Villa 2 - Southampton 0
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The Independent Online

The ultimate destination of James Beattie, the striker Southampton own and Villa covet, may be one of the new season's bigger transfer talking points, but David O'Leary's team do not appear in urgent need of another goal man, even one as potent as Beattie, after this exhilarating display up front from the jet-propelled pair of Darius Vassell and Carlton Cole, the latter brought on a season's loan from Chelsea.

Villa's top-scorer last season, Juan Pablo Angel, has almost recovered from a knee operation and is due to appear in a reserve game this week, while Beattie was also absent, perhaps diplomatically, with a reported thigh strain while Southampton battle to keep him and Villa strive to sign him.

O'Leary confirmed Villa's interest in getting Beattie into his side. "I would love to have him," he conceded, adding that if Southampton's reported demands of £6 million went up even more, the deal might be off.

Southampton's manager Paul Sturrock said: "I am very hopeful of keeping James. You don't want to lose key players, and so far the offers have been turned down. We missed him today, in both boxes."

Meantime, Villa did rather well, thank you, with the combination of Vassell and Cole, whose pace and control reduced Southampton's tall, but one-paced, defensive pair of Claus Lundekvam and Danny Higginbotham, who is deputising for the injured Michael Svensson, to near-panic at times.

Vassell struck the first blow to Southampton's hopes early on, forcing the ball home from close range after Gareth Barry's cross from the byline had been hammered at goal by Lee Hendrie. By then Southampton's keeper Antti Niemi had already shovelled away a Cole header, though Villa's midfield smoothness was disrupted when Hendrie had to go off in the 21st minute and Barry was forced to move from the left to his "wrong" side of the park to compensate, with Peter Whittingham coming on.

The newcomer could have put his team two ahead within minutes of coming on, courtesy of Cole's ability to disrupt Southampton's defence. However, Niemi made a glorious stop, and before Villa closed out the match with their second goal after 33 minutes, Southampton could well have equalised. Kevin Phillips crossed for Mikael Nilsson to get in a shot which was somehow scrambled off the line by a combination of keeper and defenders.

Villa's clinching goal was a gem. Barry headed forward to Vassell, who volleyed the ball for Cole to chase, which he did to devastating effect, outpacing Lundekvam to wallop a shot which even Niemi could not get near.

For the second half, Southampton added experience to the midfield by bringing on Rory Delap and Anders Svensson, and this immediately succeeded in getting them more of the ball and stifling the Villa service to their electric front pair. Perhaps the heat also helped to take the edge off Villa's running, but Southampton had chances to reduce the arrears, though they never looked worth a draw. Thomas Sorensen was at full stretch in turning a Phillips shot for a corner, then Higginbotham headed a free-kick past a post.

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