Rafael van der Vaart is fast becoming Villa’s most hated man, rivalling the entire Blues squad, after proving the decider once again as Houllier’s men fell at the 20 hands of Tottenham’s 10 men. A brace from the Dutchman once again was accompanied by a goal from Villa’s Marc Albrighton in a 1-2 home defeat for the Villans. Add to this an early injury to Villa striker Emile Heskey and I was almost tempted to copy and paste my match report from the season’s earlier meeting at White Hart Lane. Spooky Christmas stuff! The one change was the order of scoring with Tottenham taking a two goal lead rather than coming from behind as they did a few months back. The fact that Tottenham were reduced to 10 men, when 0-1 up after half an hour, made this defeat a real body blow. An alleged elbow from Defoe on Collins had seen Villa handed a significant lifeline in this one but the fact that Houllier didn’t have many phone-a-friends on the bench meant that his side were unable to capitalise.
A highly unexpected return to first team action saw Fabian Delph thrown in at the deep end with not a minute of competitive action in over 8 months. A gutsy call from the Frenchman was backed by another perhaps fatal decision to leave the likes of the apparent badly behaved suspects of John Carew, Stephen Ireland and Richard Dunne. Despite this, club captain Stiliyan Petrov did return as a substitute after missing the last two months of the campaign. As expected Houllier opted for a more attacking formation in the absence of Ashley Young with Agbonlahor and Heskey starting as a strike partnership though the latter’s afternoon was cut short once again. Jonathan Hogg kept his place in the smallest centre midfield in history alongside the returning Delph with the ‘giant’ figure of Barry Bannan sacrificed to the bench.
Villa couldn’t have wished for a better start after two chances in the opening 90 seconds should have seen the hosts take the lead. An early foul from Kaboul on Agbonlahor saw a ball launched to Collins in the box whose knockdown picked out Albrighton. The young winger failed to connect clinically and his half volley was kept out by Gomes.
From the resulting throw in from Lichaj, keeping his place after a man of the match display last time out, the ball was worked to Delph who delivered a good ball onto the head of the free Agbonlahor who could only head wide.
A frantic start saw Spurs have a great chance to take the lead themselves after a sublime flick from Lennon found Defoe in the box but Friedel came out well to deny the striker at his feet.
A Villa penalty claim was still to come in the opening 10 minutes when a deflected Albrighton cross reached Heskey who appeared to get to the ball before the onrushing Gomes. The keeper seemed to bring down the Villa striker and continued to land heavily on Heskey’s trailing leg which was effectively game over for the front man.
The controversial non-award was cancelled out after the visitors netted through Kaboul only for the linesman to rule the goal out. Alan Hutton was adjudged to have not kept in a looping free kick from van der Vaart although replays suggested otherwise.
Villa should have taken advantage of this fortunate decision when excellent combination play from Agbonlahor found the crocked Heskey who did superbly to control and flick the ball back to his strike partner. Gabby’s pace saw him bear down on the Spurs goal and he should have finished a 1-on-1 but could only fire straight at Gomes before his headed rebound was saved once more by the Brazilian.
The action was to be Heskey’s last of note and the big man had to be replaced by Delfouneso, Villa’s only reserve striker in the absence of Carew when surely a straight target man swap would have been a preference. Poor selection from the manager in my opinion, whose omissions of experienced players doesn’t appear to be interest of the team in terms of results.
The difference between the sides in an end to end game was that when Tottenham did nearly concede, they took advantage. A Paul Merson-esque ‘worldy’ of a ball from Luka Modric found Hutton on the right who cut back to the little Dutchman to steer home to cap an excellent opening quarter of the match. Neither Villa centre back could reach the cut-back when perhaps they should have, and slack marking allowed van der Vaart a simple finish.
Villa’s lifeline came just minutes later when Defoe was deemed to have elbowed Collins in an aerial challenge that was a bit of a mismatch. In levering himself to contend for a header with the defender, Defoe lead with his elbow and caught the Villa man in the face. The referee consulted with the linesman before ruling that a red card was warranted. Harsh.
The home side failed to make the one man advantage pay in the remainder of the first half and it was Tottenham who came closest to extending their lead. Neat play from Palacios saw him beat Hogg, found out somewhat in this one, and play a neat one-two with the ever involved van der Vaart. The Honduran international fired a curling effort at Friedel who made a fantastic stop, which went unrecognised, to tip wide.
The interval saw the comeback of captain Petrov for Hogg who had been booked in the first period after several mistimed tackles. The Bulgarian’s significantly more experienced head seemed to pay dividends in the Villa midfield as the home side looked for an equaliser.
Delfouneso couldn’t quite connect in an acrobatic effort to turn home an Albrighton delivery after decent work from Delph as Villa struggled to break down a superbly resolute Spurs backline.
The killer blow came unsurprisingly on the break when Tottenham’s pace proved the undoing for the Villa defence. An attack from the home side saw a cross cleared to van der Vaart whose neat flick found Bale. In an attacking position, Collins was unable to catch the lightning quick Welshman who went on to skip past Cuellar before picking out Lennon. The winger fought the urge to claim glory and pulled back for van der Vaart to stroke home into the far corner of Friedel’s net.
An Agbonlahor drive from long range was well tipped wide from Gomes before Villa did make the breakthrough after 82 minutes. The impressive Albrighton, once again, dazed Aaron Lennon before standing up great ball into the box which sailed straight into the net despite the attempts from James Collins.
Late chances for a leveller were squandered by Petrov whose tame effort from an angle could not be turned home in a close range bundle from Agbonlahor. A lovely lobbed ball into the box from Albrighton saw Lichaj race through but the American was well forced wide and could only find the side netting under the body of Gomes.
In conclusion even before Spurs were reduced to 10 Villa played some decent stuff and created chances but were guilty of not taking them. Although you cannot doubt Houllier’s efforts to win the game in this one, poor substitute selections in what appears to be a fairly petty outlook may have proved their downfall. The home side ended with over double the amount of shots and corners and the majority of possession but couldn’t create enough clear cut chances for a struggling front line. A lack of attacking options meant that Villa could not beat the Redknapp’s 10 as the likes of Carew and Ireland could have proved useful to throw on. Maybe I’m wrong, I don’t think that the manager needs to be sacked but the transfer window must be used well in my opinion. What are your thoughts?
Villa Player Ratings
Brad Friedel – 7 – could do nothing with either goal, save from Palacios should be watched again
Eric Lichaj – 6 – bright again, Villa’s best defender
James Collins – 6 – along with Cuellar may have done better in preventing goals
Carlos Cuellar – 6 – see James Collins!
Stephen Warnock – 6 – fairly quiet but did little wrong
Marc Albrighton – 7 – lucky goal but deserved after posing consistent threat
Fabian Delph – 6 – encouraging return, some neat touches
Jonathan Hogg – 5 – some rash tackles, subbed at HT
Stewart Downing – 6 – decent but not decisive
Gabby Agbonlahor – 6 – lively moments but should have scored early on
Emile Heskey – 6 – probably should have won a penalty but injured early in the process
Nathan Delfouneso – 6 – worked hard but to little effect
Stiliyan Petrov – 6 – experienced head helped in second half
Robert Pires – 5 – poor on introduction, nearly had scrap with Harry Redknapp (not sure who’s older?)
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