With Nigel Reo-Coker’s bust up with Martin O’Neill being the main focus of attention during the past few days, it did not appear to affect Villa’s performance on Saturday against Portsmouth. It has been finally cleared that the disagreement came about after Reo-Coker had criticised a fellow player for a bad pass during training. Every now and again situations similar to this are bound to occur and O’Neill acted professionally, sending his midfielder home and dropping him from the clash against Pompey. Since Villa turned around their poor start to the season with a 3-1 victory over Liverpool, they have been unstoppable and Saturday was no exception. Facing a Portsmouth side who have failed to win a single match thus far in the campaign meant that the Villans had every right to go into the game brimming with confidence, but also wary that this is a game which they cannot afford to lose. O’Neill knew this and therefore played a 4-4-2 formation, hoping that his attacking strength would cause problems for Paul Hart’s Portsmouth side.
The Villans began the liveliest of the sides and they were rightly awarded a penalty for Nadir Belhadj’s rash challenge on Stiliyan Petrov, James Milner converted a powerfully and Villa were 1-0 up. Just before the break, Gabriel Agbonlahor’s superb solo effort saw him bag his third goal in three games and Villa were two goals to the good. Agbonlahor outmuscled and turned Portsmouth defender, Tal Ben Haim, before striking a blistering shot into the roof of David James’ net, which O’Neill called “Simply sensational, brilliant.” After the break, Villa showed signs of complacency and their tempo reduced dramatically. Portsmouth had the majority of possession in the second half as they looked for a miracle turnaround. However, when they did have opportunities on goal, Brad Friedel pulled off some remarkable saves to ensure Villa recorded their third successive clean sheet. Once again new signings James Collins and Richard Dunne showed their efficiency at the back, proving that O’Neill’s defensive signings could play a significant part in Villa’s season. In truth, Villa had the game wrapped up by the time the second goal went in, but their approach to sit back and allow Pompey to play could have proved to be dangerous if it was not for an exceptional Brad Friedel in the Villa goal. Gabriel Agbonlahor and John Carew’s blossoming partnership was evident as Villa looked vibrant upfront only to be frequently denied by David James on his return to the Pompey side. Stiliyan Petrov and Steve Sidwell pulled all the strings in the centre of midfield – there was no sign that Reo-Coker was being missed. Villa simply held out for a win in the second half and it was their fifth successive win in all competitions.
The Villans now find themselves in fifth place in the Premier League with a game in hand and Martin O’Neill has every right to be pleased with the way in which his team has responded since the defeat against Wigan Athletic. Villa’s next opposition comes in the form of Cardiff City in the Third Round of the Carling Cup. The game could see O’Neill rest some players and in doing so we could see some new players enter the fray. After that, the Villans take on struggling Blackburn Rovers, which should be another match O’Neill’s side take all three points from. After helping his side beat Portsmouth on Saturday, Gabriel Agbonlahor has stated his beliefs concerning Villa’s chances this season: “I think the top four is a realistic aim. It is going to be hard. A lot of teams are in with a shout of making it. There is no reason with the current squad why we can’t be involved.” If the Villans continue this impressive form throughout the season then O’Neill’s men can definitely rate their chances in improving on last season’s position. The 21-year-old also identified the Europa League exit as a “blessing in disguise”, which is a statement that could prove to be true as fatigue affects the other teams in the Europa League as well as the UEFA Champions League. Nevertheless, one of Aston Villa’s biggest challenges yet comes on the 5th October when the Villans face Mark Hughes’ Manchester City side at Villa Park. The Citizens are now on level points with Villa and this match may just prove which team looks more likely to pose a threat to the top four.