Hirst hurts Villa

Sheffield Wednesday 2 Whittingham 58, Hirst 87 Aston Villa 0 Attendance: 22,964
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The Independent Online
AT TIMES this season, Aston Villa have looked good enough to win everything, but not when they play like this. Maybe the demands of competing on three fronts are beginning to mount up. Sheffield Wednesday had not played so well in weeks, but Villa were a weary parody of their true selves.

This, they say, is the price to be paid for success, but when a depreciation in quality is the consequence, the argument for further reducing the workload on players gains strength. Villa came to this match from a gruelling FA Cup quarter-final last week and have only seven days left to prepare for their Wembley date in the Coca-Cola Cup. In the meantime, they face a further Premiership game against Middlesbrough on Tuesday.

The strains were self-evident, as the Villa camp readily conceded. "We have played a lot of games without much of a break and it is bound to take its toll," the veteran defender Paul McGrath admitted. "We had been fired up for the Cup match and this was a bit of a comedown."

Wednesday, who had found themselves for the second year running on an increasingly slippery slope, clearly sensed that it was all or nothing now. They had lost six out of seven, yet betrayed no suggestion that they needed to be cautious.

Giving expressive rein to their attacking capabilities, they offered Villa few invitations to play and produced football deserving of reward even before the 58th-minute goal by Guy Whittingham on which the game turned. This was a fine finish, stabbed wide of Mark Bosnich with aplomb by the former Villa striker after David Hirst had glanced a long clearance by Chris Woods into his path. But there had been sequences in the first half of equal merit, prompted more often than not by the returning John Sheridan, with the clever touches of Marc Degryse and Regi Blinker to the fore.

"They were up for the game but it was a matter of finding a balance between that and not being over-tense," the Wednesday manager, David Pleat, said. "This was a very important match for the club, which the players knew only too well."

There was a sense that Villa, understandably, had been keeping something in reserve, and there was noticeable new urgency in their play after Whittingham's goal. But the response required was beyond them.

As Villa stretched themselves in search of an equaliser Wednesday found more space. McGrath rescued Villa when Lee Briscoe crossed dangerously from the left, but was powerless when Hirst met Steve Nicol's cross from the right with a powerful header three minutes from time to cap an impressive display.