Martin O’Neill could not have hoped for a worse ending to the year after he saw his side lose their last two fixtures of 2009. Perhaps Villa had two of the hardest games in the form of Arsenal and Liverpool, but they will be ruing their missed chances of missing a vital six points which seems the Birmingham side slip down to sixth place in the league.
However O’Neill does not believe that the defeats will affect their bid to reach the top four after saying, “Steadfast, we will go again. We will start again on Saturday.” The New Year promises much for the Villans with a Carling Cup semi-final steadily approaching, an opportunity to progress in the FA Cup, and the means to reignite their challenge for a Champions League place. Last Sunday the Villains travelled to North London with a chance to mark their biggest achievement of the current season by beating each one of the top four teams of 2008-09. For 60 minutes O’Neill’s looked capable of maintaining the Gunners and holding on for at least a point. That was until the introduction of Cesc Fabregas for the home side who almost singlehandedly changed and ultimately won the game for Arsene Wenger. Perhaps Richard Dunne can be blamed for giving away an unnecessary free-kick, but no keeper would have saved the Spaniard’s perfectly placed effort.
However, after the first goal had gone in, the Villains did not give up. They began to push for an equaliser and Gabriel Agbonlahor began to threaten the Arsenal defence. His pace was worrying for the home side’s back-line, but the visitors could not find a way through. Fabregas ensured Arsenal would take all three points with a deft finish past Brad Friedel. The final blow was delivered by Abou Diaby who took advantage of Villa’s failure to close him down to finish past Friedel. On one hand O’Neill can take certain positives from the game, such as Villa’s resilient defending in the first half. This effectively prevented Arsenal from playing their usual fluent passing game, restricting their options and most importantly their chances on goal. Nevertheless, the manager will no doubt be questioning how one player was able to deconstruct what appeared to be a solid Villa back line.
Fabregas’ intelligent play exploited gaps in the Villa midfield and defence, and he was able to make Arsenal’s possession count with key passes which were rarely unsuccessful. O’Neill can definitely take note of how Arsenal’s eventual victory came down to their possession on the ball, and perhaps next time his side faces strong opposition he will ask his players to keep the ball rather than counter attack at every opportunity. After the defeat at Arsenal, the Villans had to chance to prove that they still had what it takes to defeat the big sides if they won at home to Liverpool. In comparison to the game at the Emirates, this match was not one-sided. Villa had the better of the chances in the first half when Stewart Downing’s volley was fantastically saved by Pepe Reina. In the second half, Villa had two great chances to win the game. First Reina prevented Agbonlahor from opening the scoring just before John Carew headed narrowly wide from James Milner’s cross. O’Neill will definitely rue these missed opportunities as Fernando Torres who was kept relatively quiet throughout the game delivered a devastating blow to the Villa Park faithful with a 93rd minute goal.
O’Neill expressed his disbelief by saying that his side deserved to take the three points: “It’s a blow – a real, real blow. We’ll just have to reflect on it. Someone asked me after the game if it’s been a poor Christmas? Well of course it has because we have lost both games. But this evening we should have one.” Despite affecting Villa’s league position, the two defeats have revealed a gap in the Villa squad. The Birmingham side were undone by two players that can change games, something which is missing in the Villa dressing room. Whilst James Milner is constantly improving in the central midfield position, the Villains still lack a consistent striker who can change games the way in which Torres won the game for the Reds. Agbonlahor and Carew both came close but none of them were clinical enough to apply the finishing touch. O’Neill’s defensive signings in the summer have proved to be essential but perhaps the manager needs to search for a striker in January.