A small amount of pressure mounting on Gerard Houllier was again revealed after being piled back on by a disappointing midweek defeat to Sunderland. Villa claimed a deserved 3-1 victory away to Sheffield United in the third round of the FA Cup courtesy of a fantastic debut from ex-Blade boy Kyle Walker and wing wizard Marc Albrighton. The 20-year-old full back made his first Villa appearance just two days after joining the club on loan from Spurs and didn’t take long to make his mark, punishing his boyhood club in the process. A second from the returning Albrighton, terrific once more upon his recall, put the visitors two up at half time. A clumsy if innocuous challenge from Carlos Cuellar early in the second period gave the hosts hope as Jamie Ward converted from the spot and despite a dismissal for a second yellow card for Ashley Young, Villa stretched their lead in injury time through a rare but albeit cracking Petrov strike. When the Bulgarian scores you know it’s going to be your day though a red card for Young and an impending suspension for next week’s Blues clash put a sour note on a decent display.
Under fire Houllier had a tough decision to make when selecting his starting XI as to whether to entrust some of his young stars to bring home victory to ease the pressure on the Frenchman. The manager did so for the most part bringing in Walker for a debut against his old club and recalling Bannan and Albrighton in midfield in what proved to be a wise decision. There was also an unexpected start for increasingly media-friendly and Houllier-unfriendly veteran Robert Pires who I will discuss in a later article don’t worry! These changes meant rests for James Collins, Stiliyan Petrov and Stewart Downing, Villa’s only outfield player to have played every minute of Premier League action this campaign.
The home side had injury problems in the run up to the game worsened by the absence of striker Richard Cresswell, leading to a start for Daniel Bogdanovic alongside former Man City youngster Ched Evans. The hosts started poorly and an individual strike from old-boy Walker capitalised on United’s weaknesses.
The right-back collected a neat flick from Albrighton and took advantage of weak attempts at challenges from two United midfielder’s to break to the edge of the box. A stepover and cut inside then did for defender Rob Kozluk and a tidy finish, if a slightly scuffed one with the left foot, made it 1-0 to the away side inside 10 minutes.
Despite a good start from Villa the home side could and should have drawn level after a weak back header from Richard Dunne sent Ward racing through on goal. A back on form Brad Friedel came out well to deny the Blades man with a decent block.
Villa continued to control possession but with little end product until a break down the left from the quiet Ashley Young, saw the 25-year-old hang up a great cross for Albrighton to volley home comprehensively at the back post from close in.
Houllier would have been happy with the opening half after resolute defending and decent finishing had seen his side take a commanding lead with Agbonlahor coming close to building on it but for a decent save from Simonsen at the end of the first period.
Houllier would have hoped to shut up shop and get a long awaited clean sheet to ease the nerves but that is not the Villa way at the moment and the side conceded their fourth penalty in as many games straight after the break. Lee Williamson broke into the Villa box and drew a needless challenge from Cuellar to give the home side a route back into the game. It was unclear as to whether the Spaniard got more of the ball or the man but a silly challenge nonetheless led to a Jamie Ward strike straight down the middle of the goal with Friedel diving to his right.
After an impressive and confident display, Walker nearly tried a trick too far and turned into trouble on the edge of his own box before giving the ball away to Bogdanovic. The striker forced a great acrobatic stop from the American keeper to keep Villa in front and save the debutants blushes in an otherwise faultless display.
Villa then began to reimpose themselves on the game, introducing Downing and Petrov for Bannan and the once more ineffective Pires. Agbonlahor had another chance but is yet to find his scoring boots, a matter he will hope to put right in order to improve on a good record against the Blues next time out, as he fired into the side netting after racing clear.
The Villa skipper Petrov had two chances in as many minutes to ensure victory for Houllier’s side, first denied by the United keeper after being put through by fellow sub Downing and then, after combining with Downing once again, heading just wide from a corner.
A stupid challenge from Ashley Young saw him deservedly pick up a second yellow at a crucial time for his team and indeed his manager. The winger was muscled off the ball by defender Bartley before reacting with a silly challenge to bring down the United man. The dismissal will now see him miss next weekend’s game against Birmingham and will be a bitter blow for his manager in an otherwise pleasing performance.
Friedel was forced into one final save from midfielder Johnny Ertl, whose overhead kick was well stopped by the 39-year-old in what was the home sides last real chance of the match.
Villa ensured victory after Petrov made no mistake in injury time. Another fantastic run from Walker, more of those please, saw the right back pick out Albrighton on the left who played a neat one-two with the Villa captain before the Bulgarian fired home an unstoppable third to make up for earlier misses. A rare goal for the midfielder whose 8 goals for the club have never come in a defeat which indicated that it would be a good day for the visitors.
A good performance and importantly an impressive looking link up between fellow England Under-21s Albrighton and Walker down the right flank, a pairing which, if remaining solid, will scare even the best Premier League left-backs. I’m pleased with the performance but disappointed with Young whose petulance could cost Villa in the derby and the now-experienced attacker, should have known better! Thoughts?
Villa Player Ratings
Brad Friedel – 8 – back to his best, two impressive stops
Kyle Walker – 8 – fantastic dribbling and goal, one silly error but we’ll let him off on his debut!
Carlos Cuellar – 6 – clumsy challenge led to penalty but otherwise decent
Richard Dunne – 7 – early error but recovered with solid display thereafter
Ciaran Clark – 7 – looked assured in unfamiliar territory once again
Marc Albrighton – 9 – well taken goal and two assists pipping Walker to MoM
Nigel Reo-Coker – 7 – controlled the midfield
Robert Pires – 6 – lasted longer but still to little effect
Barry Bannan – 7 – nice touches, probably not quite enough to keep place against Blues
Ashley Young – 5 – quiet but great assist for second, needless and petulant dismissal
Gabby Agbonlahor – 7 – lively but needs to get back in the goals against Birmingham
Stiliyan Petrov – 7 – got into good positions, could have had hat-trick but great finish
Stewart Downing – 7 – along with Petrov, introduced to real effect
James Collins – no time
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