Wigan Athletic 0 Aston Villa 0: Sorensen save sets the tone for Villa

Click to follow
The Independent Football

In Lancashire's principal summer sport, bringing up the half-century with a duck would be impossible. The winter game is a different matter, as Wigan proved yesterday when Aston Villa's visit to the JJB Stadium delivered their first goalless draw in 50 Premiership fixtures.

Villa were more satisfied with the stalemate, although they missed the opportunity to climb into third place. They have lost only once in 13 matches since Martin O'Neill succeeded David O'Leary as manager, and now have successive home games against Middlesbrough and Manchester City in which to cement their elevated position.

Wigan had been striving for a fifth consecutive win and conjured the better scoring chances. Their best effort came to grief on a post, Villa's Isaiah Osbourne being spared a second-half own goal by the same part of the same upright that frustrated Peter Whittingham early on.

O'Neill continues to play down his team's capabilities but had to acknowledge their resilience afterwards. "Liverpool are a much, much better side than us, but they haven't won away yet," he said. " We've got five draws and a win, but then we have played at Arsenal, Chelsea and Liverpool. If you had asked me 10 days ago, I'd have taken the four points we got from our trips to Everton and Wigan.

"We went in with plenty of confidence but Thomas Sorensen had to make a fantastic save in the first minute. That set the tone for the first half, when Wigan were miles better than us. We got better after half-time, but it would have been harsh on them if we had sneaked the win."

O'Neill's opposite number, Paul Jewell, declared himself "very pleased" with his team, which lacked the injured Emile Heskey and had Arjan de Zeeuw playing despite having been unable to train all week.

"I just wish it had been away from home because a 0-0 away always sounds better," the Wigan manager said. "All that was missing was a goal."

The contest underscored two points. One is that when you remove Chelsea, Manchester United, Arsenal and Liverpool from the equation, the quality of the so-called "best league in the world" is essentially ordinary. The other is that in six years away from English football, O'Neill has lost none of his fabled ability to organise and motivate.

Villa, deprived of Stiliyan Petrov with a hamstring injury and the suspended Gavin McCann, fielded a midfield quartet with an average age of 21-and-a-half. Yet what they lacked in imagination they made up for in cohesion and endeavour. Indeed, after Wigan lost their creative player, Josip Skoko, it was the home goal that came under greater threat.

The statistics reveal Wigan to be the strongest starters in the top division, a quarter of their 16 goals having come inside the opening five minutes. They should have increased the percentage here after just 45 seconds, only for Lee McCulloch to send his free header from an Henri Camara cross too close to Sorensen, who batted the ball aside.

Whittingham's volley against the post in the 14th minute was the main threat to Chris Kirkland's fourth clean sheet in five, although it took a textbook sliding tackle by Skoko to thwart Gabby Agbonlahor after he rounded Matt Jackson with 16 minutes left.

Wigan also began the second half positively. Sorensen again rescued Villa when he parried Paul Scharner's shot at point-blank range, but the Danish goalkeeper had been helpless 60 seconds earlier as Osbourne, 19, dived to head Emerson Boyce's cross against the frame of his own goal.

"I'd have killed him if that had gone in," quipped O'Neill. It was an interesting turn of phrase for one who is breathing new life into Villa.

Wigan Athletic (4-4-2): Kirkland; Boyce, Jackson, De Zeeuw, Wright; Teale (Cotterill, 76), Skoko (Landzaat, 79), Scharner, Kilbane; Camara, McCulloch. Substitutes not used: Filan (gk), Webster, Johansson.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Sorensen; Mellberg, Cahill, Ridgewell, Bouma; Agbonlahor, Osbourne, Barry, Whittingham (Agathe, 51); Sutton, Angel (Davis, 68). Substitutes not used: Taylor (gk), Berger, Baros.

Referee: S Bennett (Kent).

Booked: Wigan Jackson.

Man of the match: Skoko.

Attendance: 18,455.

* Villa last night appointed Richard FitzGerald as their new chief executive officer. Fitzgerald, who will take up the position on 1 January, joins from the sports, entertainment and media group IMG. Robin Russell is the club's chief financial officer, joining from the credit-card company MBNA Europe.