Aston Villa achieved their first back-to-back wins of the season away at Wigan in a game which brought changes to the successful line-up against Man City including debuts for youngster Nathan Baker and new recruit Jean Makoun. Their arrivals came at the expense of the absent Ciaran Clark and the benched Marc Albrighton who was rested along with Stiliyan Petrov with Nigel Reo-Coker also getting a start. Gabby Agbonlahor’s unmissable one yard header was his first goal in the league this season, giving the visitors an early second half lead. Ashley Young was brought down in the box by Hendry Thomas and duly dispatched the resulting penalty kick with a fierce drive straight down the middle. A huge deflection took James McCarthy’s shot from range into the bottom corner after slack closing down on the edge of the box to create a nervy last 10 minutes. Villa just about managed to hold on for their first back-to-back wins of the season, taking them 6 points clear of relegation into 13th, just 3 points off a possible European spot in 7th, currently occupied by Blackburn.
The game started brightly in an open tie which was good to see as both sides could easily have been nervous about losing this one. The first real chance came after 5 minutes and fell to Wigan’s Franco di Santo. The striker beat Richard Dunne at the near post but could only guide his header just over the bar from an N’Zogbia cross.
Villa hit back immediately when captain for the day Ashley Young’s quick free-kick found Bent in the box who controlled expertly but couldn’t get any power behind his effort which was easily saved by Ali Al-Habsi.
The visitors then began to pile on the pressure and after neat build up involving Bent and Young once again, the latter picked out Downing he perhaps should have scored when one-on-one with Al-Habsi despite a narrow angle. The rebound came back off the Bolton keeper with Bent first to react but having to turn sharply took much of the power out of his close range effort and Al-Habsi blocked once again.
Houllier’s side continued to attack in the opening exchanges and a decent delivery from the right from Carlos Cuellar found Bent once again but the record signing failed to connect in a swing-and-miss volley attempt. Bright start from the £24m man though!
Wigan looked to alleviate the pressure by launching an attack of their own and reported Villa interest Hugo Rodallega’s deflected effort was well saved by Friedel who was going the other way. The Colombian tried again just a minute later but his audacious chip sailed just over the bar.
After showing some good composure and a comfortable ability to retain possession, Jean Makoun’s debut was hampered somewhat after a booking for pulling back Rodallega. Fellow debutant Nathan Baker was coping well with Wigan’s main threat down the right of Charles N’Zogbia in an assured display.
Downing picked out Ashley Young with a delivery to the back post but the Villa man’s volleyed effort was blocked from close range and the two defences began to settle into the game with chances drying up slightly ahead of half time. Entertaining first period with some encouraging signs for Villa.
Villa began the second half just how Houllier would have wanted with Young making a quick burst down the left before forcing Al-Habsi into a smart stop from an angle. The resulting corner saw Villa break the deadlock as Cuellar rose well at the back post, producing a header which seemed destined for the net. The Wigan goalkeeper however, made another terrific save but was unable to prevent Agbonlahor’s header from on the line, from going over the line! 0-1.
Makoun’s debut comes to an end after an hour when he is withdrawn for club captain Stiliyan Petrov. Steady display from the Cameroon international who is likely to take a couple of weeks to get acclimatised to the English game and back to match fitness after sitting on the bench much of Lyon’s campaign thus far.
Just minutes later Villa had the chance to make it two when Ashley Young was tripped in the box by Hendry Thomas with the ref having no choice but to award the spot kick. Despite Bent no doubt wanting the penalty mantle at Villa Park, Young, after winning the penalty, stepped up and duly converted, smashing the ball down the centre of the goal.
Young had the chance to stretch the Villa lead when he capitalized on a slip from Stephen Caldwell but Al-Habsi was again out well to prevent the skipper from chipping into the net over the onrushing Oman stopper.
Friedel was called into action for the first time in the second half with Villa coasting with 15 minutes remaining. N’Zogbia cut in from the right onto his favoured left foot but the winger was forced wide and couldn’t get enough power behind his low striking with the American keeper making a comfortable stop.
Wigan then got the lifeline they needed to turn this game back into a real contest when James McCarthy was allowed way too much time from outside the box and his drive took a huge deflection off Collins, taking the ball into the bottom right corner with Friedel going the other way.
Villa were forced to hang on after the home side sensed an equaliser and just minutes after scoring Rodallega fired a low drive inches wide of Friedel’s right hand post. An N’Zogbia corner then found Di Santo at the near post once again but the frontman could only head straight into the arms of Friedel.
Villa held on despite a neat move from Wigan with just minutes remaining when N’Zogbia produced a neat flick to play in substitute Ben Watson but the midfielder blazed wildly over the bar.
Villa Player Ratings
Brad Friedel – 7 – forced into a couple of decent saves
Carlos Cuellar – 7 – some great challenges, a few shaky moments but great header led to opener
Richard Dunne – 7 – solid and hitting a decent run of form
James Collins – 7 – unlucky deflection on Wigan goal, gutsy as ever but beaten on some occasions
Nathan Baker – 7 – assured display marking dangerman N’Zogbia in unexpected debut
Stewart Downing – 6 – broke well but little end product, could have scored
Nigel Reo-Coker – 8 – bossed midfield, few too many fouls
Jean Makoun – 7 – steady display, keeps possession very well but booked
Gabby Agbonlahor – 7 – still not at his best by a long way but good to get his first league goal
Ashley Young – 7 – gave away possession on occasion but won penalty and some neat touches
Darren Bent – 7 – started well, could have had a brace but faded due to isolation
Stiliyan Petrov – 6 – defended well enough
Marc Albrighton – no time
Chris Herd – no time
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