Aston Villa polished off the final game of the season with an entertaining 0-0 draw against Valencia, showing some encouraging signs right before the new season, surely impressing the watching England manager, Fabio Capello. The only concern might be the lingering lack of a genuine threat in front of goal, Stewart Downing’s injury time free kick rattling the cross bar being the one true chance on target.
The early taking point, of course, was the unsurprising absence of a certain midfielder whose move to Man City could not look more certain now. If the powers that be get their skates on, Milner may still get his chance to play Valencia at Eastland tomorrow night. I’m joking, but the sooner the better, I’m sure all will agree now.
Some impressive performances among the midfield 5 will have gone a long way to alleviating any concerns that Milner’s imminent departure might create. In particular, Marc Albrighton once again, who was a live wire throughout, taking players on, making some incisive runs and sending some quality balls into the box, but I was also pleased to see Nigel Reo-Coker show his strengths in the middle alongside Stiliyan Petrov.
Villa pretty much enjoyed total control during the first 30 minutes, a mixed strength Valencia happy to sit back in a reasonably slow tempo game. When they did press in the final third of the half, it was notable that they focused their attack toward Habib Beye who was comfortable in defense, although doesn’t always inspire 100% confidence. He’s decent enough though and he showed some adventurous signs, looking to provide Albrighton with an overlap on a few occasions.
Dunne was partnered by the reliable Ciaran Clark who matched his performance against Fulham last year and might have troubled the goal keeper with a better delivery early in the half. Luke Young filled in at left back and put in a solid, committed performance.
One of the things I found most pleasing about the shape was the use of Petrov and Reo-Coker as the double pivot holding pair I’ve been so desperate to see for so long. Although I remain skeptical about Petrov’s ability to be as incisive as we need in that part of the pitch, coupled with Reo-Coker, it balances out rather well.
I think Ash struggled to pick up the ball as much as he would like between those two and John Carew, and was forced outside a bit more than is effective in this formation, but this remains a role that suits is talents and he’s reveled in during brief spells in the past. He’ll score goals this season from there, don’t you worry about that.
On the wings, Downing showed he undoubtedly has the talent to be a major contributor to our cause this season, while also managing to frustrate with his delivery now and again. I think many Villa fans are expecting big things from him this year and I’d count myself among that group. The manager might too, Downing closed out the game with the armband.
Carew looked like he might have one of those games where he poked in a cheeky flick or two, but in the end he couldn’t quite find the pace and drew a blank from his 45 minutes.
Heskey replaced the big man for the second half and did a typical Heskey day at the office. Stephen Warnock, who only failed to start for personal reasons, replaced Richard Dunne after the break, the Irishman looking like he may have picked up a slight knock toward the end of the first half. A concern, no doubt.
Beye filled in at centre half with Luke Young switching back to the right and it was fine, nothing else really to say. Just fine, although I’d place Habib Beye firmly as 6th choice centre half myself.
MON made a triple change just after the hour, bringing on Guzan in place of Friedel, Sidwell in place of Petrov and gave Delfouneso a run in place of Marc Albrighton. The young striker did well, looking to force an opportunity or two in the right channel, but could probably do with being a little more selfish in the danger area. That will come with confidence I’m sure.
Andreas Weimann got 17 minutes in place of Ashley Young, with Eric Lichaj replacing Luke Young for the same period. Again, both did perfectly well, but didn’t have much time to make a great impression. As far as the season goes, if we needed to call on either of these players for short periods, I wouldn’t be in the slightest concerned.
With 7 minutes left, Ciaran Clark was rested, Shane Lowry his replacement. One of the biggest cheers of the night was reserved for Moustapha Salifou coming on in place of Nigel Reo-Coker. In the limited time he had, it felt like he attempted more key forward passes than Petrov had the whole time he was on the pitch, but I’m sure that was just my bias. It was good to see him though and he showed one or two subtle signs that he can certainly do a job for us this year in rotation.
And then finally, a little spice towards the end. Alexis was booked after a double foul on Nathan Delfouneso making a typically determined charge up the right wing and then Stewart Downing’s free kick struck the woodwork in injury time, almost providing the perfect ending. Shane Lowry did his best on the follow up, but shot wide.
Overall, despite the lack of goals, a fine tonic to the Benfica defeat. The Marc Albrighton cat will be well and truly out of the bag by now, but hopefully he’ll spring a surprise or two on the Premier League opponents who underestimate him. James Who? Exactly!
I think Marc might edge any votes for Man of the Match, but I’d be tempted to opt for Reo-Coker who performed the unglamorous and easily overlooked role in the middle that provides the stability we need for the rest to function. That’s what he does best, it’s a shame it’s a difficult role to appreciate, but I’m happy he seems to be among the players who are staying, maybe bygones can be bygones and we can get him in a new contract before he walks on a free next summer.
Without wanting to appear breathlessly carried away, my final thought has to go to the system used tonight. At one point in the second half, with Delfouneso playing as a slightly withdrawn forward, Ash and Downing on the “wrong wing”, in front of Petrov and Reo-Coker in the dual holding role, I found myself wondering whether we were witnessing a false nine, with inside out wingers and a double six…
…I quickly dismissed that though, a pretentiously trendy thought on my part and, in any case, I’m constantly told Martin O’Neill is stuck in the past and is “tactically inept”, he couldn’t possibly be employing such vogue tactics.
Well, all the rehearsals are over, we’ll find out in a week!!