Club Focus – Aston Villa – Time to be more clinical

Aston Villa’s unbeaten run in the Premier League continues, but their seventh draw of the season meant that it was two valuable points lost.

Manchester City’s loss at home to Everton may have just kept the Villans in the race for fourth place, despite only gaining two points after back-to-back home games. However, with the chance to climb up to fifth place above City and within two points of Tottenham, the Villa faithful were left feeling frustrated after another missed opportunity. Although Martin O’Neill believes that there will be more “twists and turns” in the battle for the Champions League place, if the Midlands side continue to drop points the prospect of playing in any European competition may elude them.

John Carew’s eighth goal in seven games – his 14th in all competitions – salvaged a point for Villa after Fraizer Campbell opened the scoring for Sunderland on 22 minutes. Villa’s high-tempo approach to the game was undone by a fine counter-attack in which Kieran Richardson’s penetrating pass found Campbell who lifted the ball over Brad Friedel to put the visiting side ahead. The Villa manager was left questioning how one pass managed to undermine the entire Villa backline as he found his side a goal behind for the second time in the space of five days. Eight minutes later, however, James Milner’s pass found Ashley Young on the right-flank who swung in a curling cross that was converted by an unmarked John Carew. Villa’s prolific goal scorer had two great chances to put Villa ahead in the second half while Darren Bent and John Mensah both came close for the Black Cats. However, in the end, neither side could find a breakthrough so they both shared the spoils at the end of 90 minutes.

Since Villa’s call for a prolific goal scorer, the Norwegian has been in irresistible form and he is now only one goal behind Gabriel Agbonlahor’s total for the season. With James Milner receiving all the plaudits in the centre of midfield, Ashley Young’s performances sometimes go missed. In the past two games against Wolves and Sunderland, Young’s excellent deliveries from wide areas were Villa’s most potent threat. Perhaps if Carew was less wasteful with his headed chances from Young’s deliveries, then the Villans may be scoring much more goals. Milner and Young in particular worked well when building-up the play to the Sunderland penalty box, but the strikers were less than effective when the final ball came into the area. This time, however, credit has to be given to the Sunderland defenders who produced some resolute defending.

The Villa manager made his frustrated feelings known after the match: “While we’ve been unbeaten for a considerable time, you’d be hoping that with two consecutive home games we’d have taken four points.” Stewart Downing on the other hand remained optimistic, “[The top four race] is wide open. Whoever puts two or three wins together will be in a good position.” This is exactly what Villa must do not only to challenge for fourth place, but to also ensure they are participating in European competition next season.

Their next opponents are a Chelsea side who really cannot afford to drop points in the title race and will therefore be looking to take all three points when Villa visit Stamford Bridge. With Emile Heskey, James Milner and Richard Dunne all suffering from achilles problems, the Villans could well go into the game considerably weakened, especially if Agbonlahor has not returned back to full fitness. The Villa defence has looked vulnerable recently but they will need to be strong and stable against the Blues, and Didier Drogba in particular, who is in scintillating form. Nevertheless, the Midlanders can cause problems for Carlo Ancelotti’s men and Villa have been known to raise their game against the tougher opponents.

With eight games left until the end of the season, the Villans are not out of the top four race just yet, but losing to Chelsea could have serious repercussions if the other teams win their matches. O’Neill has been talking about looking to the strength-in-depth of his squad, and perhaps he needs to rotate soon before essential players become injured.

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