A goalless draw against Tottenham at White Hart Lane meant that the Premier League table was left looking its familiar self with Liverpool creeping back into the top four ahead of Spurs, Manchester City and the Villans.
The hosts were without a doubt the better side with 15 attempts on goal to Villa’s five, but it was the Birmingham side’s resolute defence that prevented the home side from taking all three points. The Villans can certainly boast that it was their eighth successive game unbeaten, but in terms of the Champions League spot, O’Neill and his players will feel as though it was a chance gone missing.
After the match, O’Neill perfectly summed up Villa’s effective defensive approach, “If we couldn’t win the first ball we made sure we got the second one.” Every time Spurs pressed for the opening goal, the Villa defence was always prepared to block any efforts on goal and to execute vital sliding tackles to disrupt the opposition attack. In total, the Villa rearguard made 17 blocks in their penalty area compared to the eight they made last week against Arsenal, emphasising just how much Villa were on the back foot. Spurs manager, Harry Redknapp also said, “The [Villa] centre-halves got in some great blocks. They kept getting their bodies in the way. They’re known for that. At least we made them work.”
The difference between the two sides on Saturday was the Villa goalkeeper, Brad Friedel, called “terrific” by O’Neill. As Spurs constantly pushed for the opening goal, Friedel was on hand to parry any attempts on goal, push out crosses and to generally command the Villa defence. In the first half he made a series of excellent saves, first to prevent Ledley King twice and then a fine save against from Tom Huddlestone’s 30-yard strike. Throughout the match he complemented the defensive the performance and proved that he is one of the reasons why Villa have kept four successive clean sheets.
Moreover, O’Neill was quick to comment on the impact of his summer signings when questioned on the reason behind Villa’s defensive success, “I think that the players who have come in to the football club just in the last week of the August transfer deadline have transformed us really. Dunne, Collins and Warnock have been really fantastic.” However, with the mid-week match against high-scoring Manchester United looming, it will be interesting to see whether or not the Villa back line will be unpicked by the likes of Nani, Antonio Valencia and Wayne Rooney.
The stakes are high with Wednesday night approaching as United will want a victory to keep the pressure on Chelsea at the top of the table, whilst the Villans will want to maintain their prominence in the race for fourth spot. If O’Neill opts to play the same team that he fielded against Tottenham, he will hope that fatigue will not affect his side’s performance as it has done already this season.
O’Neill was quoted saying that the games against Tottenham and Manchester United would be important for his England hopefuls, in particular, James Milner, Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young, Stewart Downing and Emile Heskey. “I’m quite sure that there are a number of players that Capello has already earmarked for South Africa. But there must be at least four positions in the squad where you think that people’s form could dictate what would happen. And if somebody was absolutely bang in form up against someone you had a bit of time for but was out of form, I think that must have a bearing nearer the time.” He then added that showing their potential against top quality opposition would certainly increase their chances of being considered by Fabio Capello.
All in all, despite a goalless draw at White Hart Lane, the Villans are still in the competition for fourth place. Once again, their impressive defensive performances are not being complemented by goals at the opposite end of the pitch, but O’Neill is confident they will come, in time.