Dismal is a word that you would rarely use to describe a local derby game in the Premier League, nevertheless, the Birmingham derby was. Fans and neutrals alike were hoping for an open game with plenty of goals, challenges and excitement. However, it was the opposite. For 85 minutes, the game looked as though it was going to be a stalemate with both sides lacking any potency upfront until Gabriel Agbonlahor scored his second goal in two games to give Villa a vital win over their closest rivals.
24 Cuellar– 5 Dunne – 29 Collins – 25 Warnock
8 Milner – 20 Reo-Coker – 4 Sidwell – 7 Young
For the first time, O’Neill’s preferred 4-5-1 formation failed to have an effect on the game as Villa were unable to string a series of successive passes and they were therefore unable to play their dangerous counter attacking football. On the other hand, the new £17m defence, which included new signings James Collins, Richard Dunne and Stephen Warnock, was kept relatively untroubled. Richard Dunne, in particular was fantastic, making a total of 24 clearances to prevent many Birmingham attacks on goal and he was deservedly Villa’s man of the match.
During the later stages of the game, an anxious Martin O’Neill looked on as his side, which finished 6th last season, were being unusually matched by a newly promoted side. You have to give credit to Birmingham who battled courageously and as a result were able to contain the Villans. In an attempt to change something, O’Neill was the first of the two managers to introduce a substitution, replacing Nigel Reo-Coker with John Carew. However, Birmingham’s Ecuadorian striker, Christian Benitez who replaced Garry O’Connor looked the most likely of the substitutions to make anything happen. In the end, Villa were granted a little bit of luck as the referee, Howard Webb awarded a dubious free-kick to the Villans. Ashley Young crossed a diagonal ball into the box which Birmingham failed to defend and John Carew headed the ball across goal onto the head of Gabriel Agbonlahor who was never going to miss. “Two free headers at a set piece and we have been punished,” was how the Birmingham manager saw Villa’s winning goal. After the goal, the game picked up the pace and saw Villa miss two one-on-one chances. One Agbonlahor squandered over the bar and the other saw Carew over hit a pass to James Milner who had an open net to aim for. The two chances emphasised Villa’s lack of potency in front of goal, which is still something that could potentially plague the Villans’ season. However, O’Neill’s men had enough quality to see off a Birmingham side who have every right to feel hard done by.
John Carew’s impact in the final 10 minutes of the game cannot be stressed enough as his presence made Villa much more of a threat. Villa switched to a 4-4-2 after the introduction of Carew and they looked more like the team that they are. O’Neill should have started with a 4-4-2 as it was dangerous for his side to sit back in the defensive 4-5-1 formation. This time the players’ mentality was not to blame as the new-look defence were almost faultless at the back, despite playing with each other for the first time. However, if there is anyone that has come out of the game with the most to be proud about, it is Agbonlahor. With two goals to his Premier League tally already and with Emile Heskey failing to leave the substitutes bench, Fabio Capello has been given a subtle hint that there is another striker who intends on going to South Africa in 2010. O’Neill rightly said that this is a genuine possibility “if Gabby continues to play and perform right through the season, there is no reason for him to be disregarded.” With three successive Premier League wins, and four in all competitions the Villa manager has every right to feel “delighted” and“relieved”. Even though the Villans performance against Birmingham on Sunday was arguably their worst performance of the campaign thus far, they did what all the good teams do best when they have not performed – win.