Aston Villa 0 Wigan Athletic 2: Valencia puts brake on Villa's European plan

Mike Rowbottom
Sunday 04 May 2008 00:00
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It is not often that Martin O'Neill is lost for words, but such was the case – albeit briefly – in the aftermath of a result that effectively ended his side's chance of overhauling Everton for the last Uefa Cup qualifying place while confirming Wigan's Premier League status for next season.

"I think that... well... it was hard to explain," said O'Neill. "It was very disappointing. I couldn't see that performance coming. We had a chance to cement sixth place today and put serious pressure on Everton, but we just didn't do it."

Villa's disappointment was Wigan's joy, however, as two smartly taken goals in the space of 10 second-half minutes from Luis Antonio Valencia produced the victory which made certain that they will contest a fourth consecutive season in the top flight. For their manager Steve Bruce, who took over at the JJB Stadium last November after being made to feel less than welcome at Birmingham City, the season has ended in personal vindication, although he was anxious to avoid any suggestion of gloating at the plight of his former club following yesterday's defeat at Fulham.

"I remember driving home after the Bolton game on 16 December when we had nine points from 16 games and thinking, 'We're in trouble'," Bruce recalled. "Since then, we've got 31, which is a fantastic record and credit to the team.

"But what happened at Craven Cottage today doesn't give me any satisfaction whatsoever. Please believe me on that." Fate has decreed that Bruce, who played to glorious effect in Manchester United's defence under the direction of Sir Alex Ferguson, is now in a position to thwart the ambitions of his former manager as Wigan host the Premier League leaders on the final day of the season.

Bruce was swift to insist that there would be no favours asked or given. "The main quality of this Premier League is its honesty and integrity," he said. "Make no mistake, United will be in for a game." As he looks towards a summer of security, his first priority will be a beach holiday. Thereafter, he insisted, his most important task would be to keep his promising young squad together.

Such an ambition presses on O'Neill after a week in which Liverpool's desire to sign his captain, Gareth Barry, in apart-exchange deal has surfaced in the press.

O'Neill, however, refused to cite the uncertainty as a causal factor in yesterday's inexplicable capitulation.

"I'm sure it didn't help," he said. "But if you put that down as the main reason you would be searching for an excuse." While Villa's chances of making fifth place now look negligible, they are keeping a possible route to Europe open, having put their names down for next season's Intertoto Cup.

On a day when the Villa Park stands bloomed with yellow shirts – a tribute to their departing Swede, Olof Mellberg, who was making his last home appearance before moving to Juventus – the home side were unable to offer their long-serving defender a rousing send-off.

After a tentative and even first half, Wigan took the initiative in the 53rd minute when Valencia's drive from the edge of the box looped over the Villa keeper Scott Carson after taking a deflection off Wilfred Bouma. Ten minutes later the visitors doubled their lead as the Ecuadorian once again outpaced the defence, reaching an Emile Heskey header-down before Bouma and Mellberg to flick the ball home with the outside of his right foot.

It meant that while O'Neill wrestles with his angst, Bruce will be able to relax – albeit briefly – on his sandy beach.

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