"You'll never beat the Villa," gloated the visiting fans as West Bromwich Albion's followers slunk away from The Hawthorns. Aston Villa's ascendancy over their neighbours is certainly starting to assume an air of permanence, Milan Baros' late penalty winner taking their unbeaten run against Albion to 13 matches stretching back more than 20 years.
Steve Watson, a former Villan, was the villain of the piece, although an angry Albion manager, Bryan Robson, diverted the blame on to the referee, Rob Styles. Barely three minutes after Watson had seemingly secured hero status by cancelling out Steven Davis' opener for Villa, he handled Gareth Barry's free-kick to concede the decisive spot-kick.
Robson insisted that Mr Styles had allowed Barry to take the free-kick quickly, whereas he claimed his own players were repeatedly told to wait for the whistle when they were awarded a set-piece.
Baros' clinical conversion meant that Villa finished the "holiday" programme unbeaten, with eight points from four matches, as well as produced a scoreline which reflected their superiority.
David O'Leary, their manager, was only slightly exaggerating when he described Villa as "the better team by a mile". They have now lost only once in nine Premiership games since 5 November, and they looked a far more cohesive and creative unit than Albion, who came into the derby without a single defeat or goal conceded in four home fixtures. Albion began deceptively strongly, and may reflect on how different things might have been had Jonathan Greening turned Diomansy Kamara's cross past Stuart Taylor rather than into the side-netting.
Even at that stage, however, Villa exuded fierce determination, embodied by the returning Olof Mellberg's rugged handling of Kanu.
The mood was contagious. Eric Djemba-Djemba, warming up on the touchline, managed to topple one of the referee's assistants, the first tackle he has won all season according to one press-box wag.
As Villa's control grew, Luke Moore shot against the bar when he should have scored, Tomasz Kuszcak saved athletically from Gavin McCann and Mark Delaney ballooned the ball over from four yards.
Two minutes after half-time, a mistake by Neil Clement allowed Baros and Moore to feed James Milner on the left. A sumptuous step-over left Martin Albrechtsen trailing and an equally impressive cross found Davis, the smallest man on the pitch, charging in to head home.
The Northern Ireland midfielder, 21 on New Year's Day, has now scored six goals this season, making him Villa's top scorer until Baros' penalty.
Albion, rightly denied a penalty when the ball struck Aaron Hughes' shoulder, drew level after Taylor failed to get sufficient purchase on his punch following Jonathan Greening's free- kick. Watson, whose engine-room partnership with Darren Carter had been the weakest part of Robson's team, fired an angled volley which passed through Moore's legs on its way into the net.
For a few, heady minutes, the home crowd scented an unlikely victory. Paul Robinson's foul on Baros, Barry's alertness and Watson's carelessness, gave the Czech the chance to ensure it proved a false trail.
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Kuszczak; Albrechtsen, Davies, Clement (Horsfield, 83), Robinson; Greening, Watson, Carter, Kamara; Kanu, Ellington (Campbell, 88). Substitutes not used: Kirkland (gk), Chaplow, D Moore.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Taylor; Hughes, Delaney, Mellberg, Barry; Davis, McCann, Bakke (Angel, 63), Milner; L Moore (Gardner, 86), Baros. Substitutes not used: Henderson (gk), Djemba-Djemba, Ridgewell.
Referee: R Styles (Hampshire).Reuse content