John Carew ensured that the Villans left Villa Park with all three points after a resolute Stoke City frustrated Martin O’Neill’s team throughout.
The win maintains their Champions League qualification hopes, with a fourth successive victory in the Premier League. Lacking their usual attacking flair, the Villa players were a joy to behold at the opposite end of the pitch, capping their performance off with a fourth successive clean sheet. Towards the end of last season, this fixture marked the start of Villa’s deterioration in form and ultimately their failure to finish in the top four. The 2-2 draw against Stoke at Villa Park after leading 2-0 for 87 minutes of the game showed that O’Neill’s men could not remain consistent and they slumped down to sixth place after enjoying most of the campaign in fourth.
This season almost mirrors Villa’s situation last season, however, they show no signs of pulling out of the race for a top four finish this time around. Perhaps when O’Neill and his players say that they have learnt from last season’s disappointment, they actually have. The game at the weekend saw the Villa manager play pretty much the same starting XI that he has played four times already. However, whether it was fatigue or fear of throwing away their promising position in the league, the Villa players began the game nervously. Passes were hurried and as a result possession was given away cheaply, giving the Stoke City players unexpected freedom on the ball. Emile Heskey’s early departure with an injury did not help to settle things on the Villa side of the pitch, but his replacement would be the difference on the day later on in the game.
Stoke City were determined to leave Villa Park with at least a point and they showed this with a rugged defensive performance which rendered the Villans attack useless. Soon the Villa wingers were struggling to break through the Stoke back line and there was no creativity to tackle this. In the end it took a simple yet effective piece of play to put the home side a goal to the good. Stewart Downing picked out Ashley Young on the right flank with a pinpoint lofted ball, Young then crossed the ball into the path of substitute Carew who headed home. Carew proved that O’Neill can rely on his substitute bench to change games the way in which the Norwegian did. This is something O’Neill will need to look at, as squad rotation is something they need to consider in order to prevent lacklustre performances and a drop in form.
When questioned about the possibility of rotating his squad, O’Neill responded with the upmost belief in them: “I’ve still got faith in the other players. Young Fabian Delph has not had a proper chance, it’s been a learning time for him really. Other players have played very, very well for us before – Steve Sidwell, Nigel Reo-Coker. We’ve alternated John Carew and Emile. Look at James Collins, who has been brilliant since he arrived, but I didn’t change it around to accommodate him because Carlos Cuellar and Richard Dunne have been terrific.” O’Neill’s strength in depth could be the vital factor that prevents a repeat of last season and keeps the Birmingham side fighting for a Champions League place throughout the season.
Nevertheless, with two important Premier League games coming up, one against Arsenal and one against Liverpool two days later, it will be surprising if O’Neill opts to rotate his squad in such tough fixtures. A victory against Arsenal would be significant in that it would mean that Villa have beaten each one of the top four teams last season, highlighting their serious contention for a top four spot. A victory against Liverpool on the other hand could end the Reds’ chance of a top four finish, which would play advantage to O’Neill’s side. However, a victory for Rafa Benitez would put additional pressure on Villa’s intentions this season.
All in all the Villans have been unbeaten since November 4 and still sit in fourth place in the League, just two points behind Manchester United. O’Neill’s side have already exceeded expectations this season and they will be going into Christmas feeling very happy at their performance thus far. The real test for Villa comes on Boxing Day and the games that follow from that, and O’Neill and his players will need to respond accordingly to arguably the most difficult part of the season. All in all the Villans have been unbeaten since the 4th November and still sit in fourth place in the League, just two points behind Manchester United. O’Neill’s side have already exceeded expectations this season and they will be going into Christmas feeling very happy at their performance thus far. The real test for Villa comes on Boxing Day and the games that follow from that, and O’Neill and his players will need to respond accordingly to arguably the most difficult part of the season.