Gerard Houllier finds his Aston Villa team in an increasingly large rut following a 4-2 defeat to Arsenal due to an abysmal first half performance. The Villans have now won just one game in their last nine Premier League matches coming from an edgy 3-2 win over a massively under strength Blackpool side. The Arsenal loss was Villa’s first league defeat at home and despite a spirited second half fight back Houllier’s men were unable to overturn what was a fortunate 2-0 deficit by half time.
Villa welcomed back John Carew from a three week lay-off although Gabby Agbonlahor was deemed unfit for the tie. Injury kept out 8 first teamer’s including Marc Albrighton whose illness is likely to keep him on the sidelines for the next 2-3 weeks. The winger was sorely missed against Blackburn and the 21-year-old’s energy and fearless attacking would have encouraged Arsene Wenger after an awful week for the London club. James Collins and Ciaran Clark also returned to the starting XI with the latter lining up in his newly adopted centre midfield role alongside Barry Bannan.
The early kick-off appeared to be about 45 minutes to early for Villa who didn’t look awake in the first half let alone up for it. New recruit Robert Pires grabbed the headlines lining up against his former club in his first start under Houllier but the Frenchman’s home debut will be one that he won’t remember too fondly.
A wounded Arsenal side visited the Midlands on the back of a 3-2 defeat to fierce rivals Tottenham and a shock loss to Braga in midweek. Wenger’s men were clearly keen to get back on track and were simply too good for Villa’s depleted squad. The likes of Nasri, Arshavin and Chamakh were in fine form and the away side could well have been three to the good after 15 minutes.
The home defence looked shaky and it was a schoolboy area, or even schoolboy errors from James Collins and Luke Young that led to Arsenal’s inevitable opener. The two went for the same ball and both pulled out of a challenge which would have seen them floor one another. The mistake saw the ball break to Arshavin in acres of space who cut inside Richard Dunne before the guilty parties of messrs. Collins and Young could get back to him. The little Russian fired a low drive beyond Friedel and into the bottom corner.
Nasri then looked destined to score after an Arshavin through ball dissected the Villa defence to put him through on goal. The midfielder rounded Friedel but could only fire wide when off balance with the keeper seeming to have done just enough to force him wide.
Friedel was quickly called into action once more and made one of the saves of the season to deny the towering Chamakh. The Moroccan striker rose above the Villa defence and powered a head at goal from 6 yards only to see his effort kept out due to an unbelievable reaction and reflexes from the 39-year-old stopper.
The fantastic save was all in vain from the keeper’s perspective when slack defending left Nasri unmarked on the edge of the box from the resulting corner. The set piece was inch perfect to strike on the volley and the Frenchman did exactly that. The midfielder’s technique in the attempt was helped by a crucial deflection off of the encroaching Luke Young taking it into the bottom corner to make it 2-0 on the stroke of half time.
Houllier’s team talk worked and his tactics paid off as Delfouneso was introduced to replace the weary looking Pires in order to support an ineffective lone threat from John Carew. The positive move had an immediate impact and surely it is time to start playing two strikers up front from the start with the current system having seen just 2 goals scored by striker’s all season in the league.
Decent pressure from Villa went unrewarded until Villa-esque defending from the first half from Arsenal allowed Clark plenty of room on the edge of the box. The youngster expertly brought the ball under control with his chest before rifling a spectacular left footed volley into the top corner.
The home side looked to be back in the game but more unimpressive defending allowed Arsenal to restore their two goal advantage within minutes. A Rosicky through ball found Chamakh all too easily with Dunne not close enough to his man. The forward just reached the ball before the oncoming Friedel and prodded home under the sliding keeper to make it 3-1.
Stephen Ireland was brought on to replace a clearly unfit Carew who had had a tough afternoon with very little support upon his return. The substitute made an impact and his creativity was something that the team had been lacking with Bannan unable to inspire and attack as he would like. Clark had a chance to get his second senior goal in 20 minutes when the ball broke to him in the box but the defender-cum-midfielder dragged a left footed shot wide which he should have done better with.
The 20-year-old was not to be denied a second goal however as Villa looked to reduce the deficit. An Ashley Young corner was well met by Richard Dunne whose header made it’s way to Clark in the six yard box. Clark was able to connect and flick the ball against the underside of the bar and in.
The fight back was admirable from Houllier’s men with Clark in particularly impressive in an advanced role. With Villa looking to equalise they became susceptible to the dangerous Arsenal counter though they had to throw everything at the visitors who had buckled in their last league game against Tottenham, sacrificing a 2-0 lead.
The comeback was not to be and with Dunne up front Villa were exposed when an attempted long ball from substitute Chris Herd was intercepted as Arsenal broke. With men over the ball fell to Chamakh who was being kept onside by Herd and the striker unselfishly volleyed over Friedel to leave Wilshere with a simple diving header at the back past making it 4-2 in stoppage time.
If Villa play like they did in the second half they will have no problems this season but the if’s and but’s are ever increasing and these are undoubtedly worrying times at the club. A midweek Quarter Final with the Blues has the potential to ruin or transform Villa’s season but with injuries still rife the game will be tough at St Andrews and if the last derby was anything to go by then we could be in for another snooze fest but let’s hope not!
Villa Player Ratings
Brad Friedel – 7 – not at fault for goals with one terrific save overshadowing many
Luke Young – 5 – out of sorts and error led to first goal
James Collins – 6 – battled but at fault alongside Young for first
Richard Dunne – 6 – worked hard but slack marking at times
Stephen Warnock – 5 – mistake in first minute set tone for poor showing
Robert Pires – 5 – decent passing but his age and lack of fitness is evident
Barry Bannan – 6 – started slowly but built in confidence
Ciaran Clark – 8 – two goals and a spirited display
Stewart Downing – 6 – showed very little
Ashley Young – 6 – failed to shine
John Carew – 6 – not yet fit and struggled on his own
Nathan Delfouneso – 6 – support changed the game but little chance to impress
Stephen Ireland – 6 – glimpses of real quality missing from the first half
Chris Herd – no time but crucial error for fourth.
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