United beat City 4-3 in the Manchester derby. Blackburn beat Burnley 3-2 in the Lancashire equivalent. Now it was time for the west Midlands to have its say, and Wolves vs. Aston Villa had a lot to live up to.
And as Gabriel Agbonlahor was sent free – by a Brad Friedel goal kick caught by the wind – inside the opening two minutes, you could have been forgiven for thinking these two sides would produce another scintillating local encounter. The England striker’s attempt was weak, however, and the rest of the half went by with just two further talking points – neither being a shot on goal. The opening minutes was the most exciting spell of the half, and on three minutes Wolves could, and probably should, have been awarded a penalty as Richard Dunne looked to have tugged back Kevin Doyle, but referee Peter Walton did not give it. Aston Villa had claims of their own on 23 as John Carew went down under Christophe Berra’s lazy challenge. It was not as clear a penalty shout as Doyle’s, and, in truth, a spot-kick would have been harsh. James Milner cleared a weak Doyle effort on the line on 36 as Wolves continued to stifle Villa until the break.
A scrappy first 15 minutes of the second half was underlined by three bookings as the players remembered they were involved in a derby match. There was even the unmistakable battle sign of a head bandage – sported by Wolves’ Jody Craddock. That, of course, is only half the reason derbies are loved. The other half – quality football and moments of magic – were found badly wanting until, on 80, Agbonlahor finished off the best move of the match to break the deadlock. Wolves finally got their penalty on 83 as Steve Sidwell fouled Michael Kightly, which Sylvan Ebanks-Blake put away with style. Despite some late Wolves pressure, the game ended 1-1. A fair result, but perhaps 0-0 would have been more justified.
Martin O’Neill: “Considering the performances we put in against Manchester City and Chelsea, it [the first half] was a bit of a disappointment. We improved significantly in the second half – which was not that difficult. It is a penalty – the correct decision was made.”
Mick McCarthy: “The one in the first half was a penalty, stonewall – but at least the referee has given us the second one. Having gone one down, it was a great reaction from us to get back into the game and get a point out of it.”
The Wolves boss is right. It was a penalty (they both were) but it wasn’t given, presumably because Doyle did not end up on the turf. Is there any advantage to a player staying on his feet other than getting credit for doing so? On the evidence of this incident, it is easy to see why players go to ground so easily, as chasing a goal-scoring opportunity, which Doyle did, ultimately leads to the chance disappearing. Instead, the striker was punished for playing the game fairly. There is little doubt with less persistence from their front-man – and more exaggeration – Wolves would have been awarded a penalty. But he stayed on his feet. (And credit to him…) At the other end, Carew thought he had won a penalty of his own after what appeared to be a foul from Berra. Neither manager gave this much post-match attention, but in truth it was probably a foul. Not as clear as the first incident, admittedly, but outside the box it would almost certainly have been given.
No-one inside Molineux on Saturday could complain about the final score. It would have been extremely harsh on the home side had Agbonlahor’s strike won the contest, and they in fact deserve a lot of credit for their contribution to how the match turned out. Wolves stifled their more illustrious opponents for the whole game, and didn’t allow O’Neill’s men to settle and play their natural, counter-attacking game. It was in the midfield that Wolves performed best, Karl Henry in particular passing well and breaking up Villa’s flow. But it is not through the middle where the away side are usually most effective – Ashley Young and James Milner are the so-often reliable creative outlets from wide.
When the wide-men are not at their best, Villa are not at their best. Although O’Neill’s 4-4-2 has produced some strong results, it doesn’t provide Young the freedom he requires to change games. In a more disciplined four-man midfield, Young is easier to pick up and on Saturday he did not work the channels as he so often has. Aside from that, his crossing was very poor and almost every one was either blocked or too close to Wayne Hennessey in the Wolves goal. His set-pieces were even way below the expected standard, meaning a team usually so strong from training-ground moves did not have that option to fall back on when a goal was required. On the other flank, Milner was better, but still far from his usual standard. The Villa wingers’ anonymity on the flanks was summed up by the opening goal, which was well worked through the centre when Young cut in from the left.
It was a game to forget for both sides, but one which both managers can learn plenty from. McCarthy will be the happier manager – his side earned their point, while O’Neill will need to rethink how best to break down hard-working sides.
Wolves 1-1 Aston Villa – Ebanks-Blake (pen) 83 – Agbonlahor 80
Wolves (4-4-2): Hennessey – Zubar, Craddock, Berra, Elokobi – Kightly (Halford 86) Henry, Castillo, Edwards (Milijas 75) – Doyle, Ebanks-Blake (Iwelumo 86)
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel – Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, Warnock – Milner, Sidwell, Petrov, Young – Carew (Heskey 71), Agbonlahor
Wolves – Aston Villa
8 – Corners – 3
8 (2) – Shots (on target) – 6 (3)
12 – Fouls – 17
1 (0) – Yellow cards (Red) – 2 (0)
2 – Offsides – 3