Aston Villa missed the chance to climb the Premier League table with a win at Fulham after the hosts equalised in the 95th minute to break Villa hearts. Villa came into the game without a win in 4 and without a goal in 3. These daunting stats were worrying with Villa missing their 3 senior strikers going into the game. A first start for Nathan Delfouneso was the result of Houllier’s injury woes but it was the last Villa player to score a league goal, Marc Albrighton, who gave Villa the lead. The manager also handed a start to youngster Barry Bannan who impressed and set-up the goal expertly. Villa could not hang onto their lead from the first half and dramatic late equaliser from Brede Hangeland but a sever dampener on an encouraging display. Goal-scorer, Albrighton was left with his head in his hands after needlessly giving away the free-kick which assisted the late and bitter blow to the visitors.
Many wrote off Villa before the game after midweek injuries to Emile Heskey and John Carew added to Gabby Agbonlahor and Stiliyan Petrov as notable absentees. Gerard Houllier set-up in the familiar 4-4-1-1 formation with Ashley Young playing off lone front man Nathan Delfouneso. Sidwell dropped to the bench along with last weeks impressive Ciaran Clark meaning that Barry Bannan was given a chance to shine alongside skipper Reo-Coker. The Villa captain was injured in the first half and replaced by Clark leaving Villa with an unfamiliar but extremely promising looking line-up consisting of players aged 21 or under.
The game started brightly from both sides with the inclusion of Bannan and the returning Marc Albrighton giving Villa much more threat than the dismal Blues derby last weekend. Stewart Downing’s early chance from an Albrighton ball was well blocked after just 2 minutes.
Fulham then had their opening chance when Zoltan Gera met a Dempsey cross but the Hungarian could only head straight at Friedel.
On 8 minutes James Collins headed wide a Downing corner after Villa’s initial set piece was cleared by Hangeland.
Villa then had a superb chance to take the lead when Bannan’s delivery was well met by Delfouneso who headed inches wide of Schwarzer’s post.
Gera then had another chance for the hosts but his shot was dragged wide of the Villa goal. Fulham then should have scored after Clint Dempsey’s effort was well saved by Friedel but the rebound fell to Gera who fired over with the goal at his mercy.
Nigel Reo-Coker fell awkwardly following a challenge from Greening after the half hour and although the captain tried to play on he had to be replaced by Ciaran Clark. Clark and Bannan were now making up a lively but inexperienced centre midfield pairing.
Villa then had another opportunity to score through Delfouneso after Bannan had picked out Young whose effort fell to the 19-year-old who could only head over the bar.
Villa’s pressure told after 41 minutes when a fantastic long, searching ball from Bannan found Albrighton. The winger’s touch was sublime followed by the finish of a goal-scoring veteran giving Villa the lead and the youngster his second of the season.
Half time at Craven Cottage and some promising signs for Houllier’s side. Not least the performance of Barry Bannan dominating the midfield and setting up a terrific Villa opener.
Villa started well once more after the break and looked comfortable with the away fans full of cheer with their young guns impressing.
After 3 early second half substitutions, Fulham began to come back into the game with substitute Andy Johnson forcing a save from Friedel on 73 minutes.
Johnson then had another good chance to level for the home side after being put through by Dempsey. Big Brad stood tall and thwarted the threat at the feet of the former Blues striker.
Stephen Ireland replaced Villa’s only striker Delfouneso meaning Ashley Young was deployed as Villa’s new goal threat. After constant pressure from Fulham the substitute combined with Downing to pick out Young but his header from close in was to close to the Fulham keeper. Chance missed.
Young then had another glaring opportunity to kill the game in stoppage time after Downing had picked out the 25-year-old. Young could only drag wide and guess what? he was made to pay for his second miss in as many minutes.
Albrighton made an unnecessary foul deep in the Villa half and Murphy’s free-kick picked out the giant frame of Brede Hangeland to pile more misery on the Villa fans. 1-1.
Villa now without a win in 5 league games and after preparing myself for a glowing appraisal of some eye-catching performances, that sinking feeling come back that is all too familiar to Villa fans. A game which Villa should have killed off, and deserved to do so will now be overlooked as another 2 points dropped and my prediction was right that a draw would have to do. Not too much to be depressed about, some great performances from Bannan in particular and some equally impressive football in a game that, due to injuries, we could have easily lost.
Villa Player Ratings
Brad Friedel – 7 – did little wrong and some important stops
Luke Young – 7 – decent tackling, fitness is back
Richard Dunne – 6 – solid enough
James Collins – 6 – dependable
Stephen Warnock – 7 – strong challenges and wasn’t booked!
Marc Albrighton – 7 – brilliantly taken goal, performance marred by silly foul
Nigel Reo-Coker – 6 – injured early
Barry Bannan – 9 – best on the pitch by some distance
Stewart Downing – 7 – some decent key passes
Ashley Young – 6 – good but should have scored twice to finish Fulham
Nathan Delfouneso – 7 – worked extremely hard on own, could have scored
Ciaran Clark – 7 – strong display once more in the middle
Stephen Ireland – 6 – no time but almost played part in a Villa goal
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