Villa vexed as scattergun approach misses target

Aston Villa 0 Wigan Athletic 0

Before this, his 100th League game as Aston Villa manager, Martin O'Neill had again deprecated his prospects of prolonging what has, to all intents and purposes, begun to resemble an authentic title challenge. Villa, he claimed, were like a wasp, merely an irritant to the established hegemony. During a sterile first half, it seemed as though he might even have meant it. But his players' vexation over their subsequent failure to take three points from a frenzied fusillade itself suggested a growing sense of entitlement.

Perhaps O'Neill should instead have compared his team to a butterfly, surreptitiously emerging from its chrysalis. Not that this is an exquisite team. Their brusque approach, and a bitter wind, meant this was no place for faint hearts. And that suited Wigan just fine. For both sides, the impasse reflected an identity crisis of a very wholesome type – one condensed by the home debut of Emile Heskey, so recently at Wigan himself.

Would Villa's players betray some incipient vertigo? How would Wigan cope with the sudden loss of Heskey and Wilson Palacios to wealthier rivals? Unbeaten in 11 League games, Villa began with a corresponding spring in their step, Gareth Barry setting the rhythm in a fashion that can only have warmed the spirits of Fabio Capello as he shivered in the stand.

But for all their power and pace, Villa could also have done with greater precision against the five-strong midfield Steve Bruce had deployed in the absence of the injured Amr Zaki.

Indeed, Wigan had the best chance of the first half in its final moments. Heskey's clearance was swept back into the box where Maynor Figueroa forced a terrific save from Brad Friedel. And the Villa keeper had already excelled in thwarting Daniel De Ridder after a deft feint from Paul Scharner.

Perhaps O'Neill was wary of a "crazy" second half of the type that provoked Rafael Benitez into his latest oddball mutterings against the same opposition, during the week. Certainly his men emerged suffused with ambition. They had a plausible case for a penalty when Figueroa all but caught the ball as he tumbled in the area, while a minute later Zat Knight headed another of Barry's delectable free-kicks on to a post.

O'Neill, sensing that Wigan's ramparts were quivering, sent on an extra battering ram in John Carew – making his first appearance since November. And after that things really did go crazy. Figueroa (once via a post) and then Scharner each cleared the ball off the line twice. Then Gabriel Agbonlahor pirouetted inside the box, only for his drive to be deflected over by Figueroa. "To be fair, we rode our luck," Bruce said. "We were out on our feet, after taking on Liverpool on Wednesday. And as the game went on, we had to show what we are about. I can't remember being under the cosh like that, and getting away with it."

He admitted his dismay at finding himself rebuilding his team in January. He is negotiating the arrival of Charles N'Zogbia from Newcastle, and is relieved that Antonio Valencia, courted by Real Madrid, intends to stay until the summer at least.

O'Neill put the experience in the perspective of a "relentless" schedule. "We're a long way from being the finished article," he said. "We're not as cohesive as Manchester United but we're in there, and we don't give up."

Perhaps O'Neill will alternate Carew and Heskey once the suspended Ashley Young restores an incisive edge. Villa have already absorbed a heavy schedule, and options like these are needed if you want to cement your place in the elite. However discreetly.

Attendance: 41,766

Referee: Rob Styles

Man of the match: Figueroa

Match rating: 7/10