As the first half was coming to a close at Craven Cottage, it didn’t look as though either side would open the scoring until Gabriel Agbonlahor hit the back of the net twice in quick succession to give Villa an unassailable advantage. The second half saw the Villans play on the back foot for most parts, but they were able to hold on for a valuable three points. Martin O’Neill now finds his side in 6th place, two points behind 4th spot with a game in hand, and they are still strong contenders for the prized Champions League allocations.
Agbonlahor was the Villa player under the spotlight after the game and quite rightly so after he ended his club’s goal drought with his first goal since December. Despite being the Birmingham side’s top goal scorer this season with 10 goals, it is definitely a concern that his goal scoring is infrequent, especially for a striker with intentions of playing for his country in the summer. Nevertheless, from his two goals on the weekend, it is obvious that Agbonlahor is a quality forward who can provide that little bit of class in the Villa squad alongside James Milner and Ashley Young.
The first goal came about when Stiliyan Petrov’s centre from the right-hand side connected to the head of Agbonlahor after out jumping Fulham defender, Chris Smalling. Four minutes later, Carlos Cuellar found Agbonlahor on the edge of the box where he had space to turn away from Brede Hangeland before expertly placing a left-foot shot past Mark Schwarzer. Two moments of brilliance from Agbonlahor put Villa two goals to the good before the interval and they turned out to be the winning goals of the game. In stark comparison to Emile Heskey, Agbonlahor looked dangerous in front of goal and apart from a header in the early stages, Heskey failed to make an impact.
Heskey used his strength well when holding up the ball and he constantly put pressure on the Fulham defenders, however, it was Agbonlahor’s movement off the ball and his influence in the game that rounded off an excellent match for the young striker. In the opposition half of the pitch he made up plenty of ground and he was largely involved around the periphery of the box by picking up the ball and joining the midfield in their attempt to break down the Fulham back four. His passes were rarely unsuccessful and he provided an extra dimension to the Villa attack by coming deep and supporting Ashley Young and Stewart Downing on the wings.
In the second half the Villans sat back and allowed Fulham to press for a way back into the game, which, on another day, could have been costly. However, due to resolute defending and excellent saves from Brad Friedel, the Birmingham side earned the clean sheet. What O’Neill will be concerned about is how vulnerable they were to the long ball which opened up their defence a couple of times and allowed the opposition attackers to execute attempts on goal. The Villa manager indentified this lapse in concentration after the game: “I thought we got a little bit tired, perhaps from Wednesday. I suppose there was a case in the last 20 or 25 minutes of ‘what we have we hold’, without exerting a great deal of pressure.” Luckily this mentality worked as Fulham lacked any potency in front of goal, but on another day or against another team, the Villans could have been punished.
Nevertheless, the victory was definitely a big boost for the Birmingham side as they return to winning ways after four league games without three points. All attention is focused on their away match against Tottenham at White Hart Lane on Saturday, a match that is a must-win for both sides contending for fourth place. Last November the sides could not be separated at Villa Park after a 1-1 draw, however, as the fight for the Champions League spot is even more competitive, the match promises to be a heated encounter.
Agbonlahor showcased his striking qualities at Craven Cottage on Saturday, and he will want to continue his current good form against Spurs to prove that he can be a consistent forward. Defoe is one of Agbonlahor’s biggest rivals in terms of the England selection and the weekend will be a perfect opportunity to send a message out to Fabio Capello.