Squeaky Brum time in the Second City derby. James Milner held his nerve to convert a fiercely disputed late penalty yesterday, giving Aston Villa an undeserved victory over Birmingham City and keeping alive their hopes of a crack at the Champions League.
Villa, in fact, booked a place in next season's Europa League by virtue of their victory but the post-match debate raged over referee Martin Atkinson's decision to penalise Roger Johnson's sliding challenge that nicked the ball from Gabriel Agbonlahor as the striker pursued Ashley Young's through-ball. Johnson branded Mr Atkinson's performance "a disgrace", insisting he had "ruined the game".
Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager, also maintained the West Yorkshire official cost his side at least a point after they dominated the second half and came up against 38-year-old Brad Friedel in world-class form. "It was never a penalty in a million years," the Scot said. "It's a shame the referee got such a big call wrong in such a big game."
McLeish claimed Atkinson was too far behind the incident, having been caught out by Agbonlahor's speed. "He surmised it was a penalty from the crowd's roar and the way the ball went. Agbonlahor had the beating of Roger with his pace but he used every inch of his body to get the ball. That's a skill."
Martin O'Neill, still nursing a sense of injustice over the "incredible decisions" that went against Villa at Wembley against Manchester United and Chelsea, argued on the strength of one slow-motion replay that Johnson had felled Agbonlahor. "It was a clear penalty," the Villa manager said. "I thought he wrapped his legs around him. But if he got the ball, obviously it becomes a separate issue."
The Villa manager acknowledged that Birmingham "might feel aggrieved" and agreed video evidence could have resolved the issue swiftly. Turning to the bigger picture, which finds Villa two points behind fourth-placed Tottenham with a visit to Manchester City looming next Saturday, he said: "It's been a great week for us. We'll go into the last two matches giving it absolutely everything."
Birmingham keeper Joe Hart, watched by Fabio Capello and England goalkeeping coach Ray Clemence, made impressive first-half saves from Stiliyan Petrov, Stewart Downing and James Collins, while Friedel denied Seb Larsson and ex-Villa midfielder Craig Gardner. After the break, however, Hart made only one major save, frustrating substitute Emile Heskey, whereas his American counterpart blocked Cameron Jerome's effort with his face, no less, before diving to stop Lee Bowyer's goalbound drive.
Downing and Carlos Cuellar each cleared off the line as Birmingham, superbly led by Barry Ferguson, strove to avenge a 5-1 thrashing on their previous visit when McLeish admitted they "played like frightened rabbits".
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Collins, Dunne, Warnock; A Young, Milner, Petrov, Downing; Carew (Heskey, 70), Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), L Young, Sidwell, Delfouneso, Reo-Coker, Beye.
Birmingham City (4-1-4-1): Hart; Carr, Johnson, Ridgewell, Vignal (Parnaby, 76); Ferguson; Larsson (Fahey, 76), Gardner (Phillips, 85), Bowyer, McFadden; Jerome. Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Benitez, Michel, Tainio.
Referee: M Atkinson (Yorkshire).
Booked: Aston Villa Cuellar; Birmingham Vignal, Johnson, Carr, Ferguson.
Man of the match: Friedel.