Club Focus – Aston Villa – Jagielka own goal cannot save Villa’s top four aspirations

While Aston Villa’s 2-2 home draw against Everton on Wednesday showcased the hosts’ fighting spirit, the result has certainly damaged their top four ambitions even further. In a post-match interview, Martin O’Neill solemnly said: “Maybe a point did not suit either team in terms of our respective aspirations, Everton in terms of European football and ourselves in terms of something higher.

It was the visitors who took the lead in the first-half after Leighton Baines’ free kick was steered into the back of the net by a Tim Cahill header. Villa began to apply the pressure while they were trailing with John Carew, James Milner and Carlos Cuellar all coming close before the interval. Villa’s equaliser came 20 minutes from the end when Milner expertly picked out an unmarked Gabriel Agbonlahor whose deft header beat Tim Howard to put the Villans on level terms. However, two minutes later, Tim Cahill struck again, heading Diniyar Bilyaletdinov’s corner past Brad Friedel. Villa’s increased pressure towards the end of the match eventually paid off when Ashley Young’s centre was glanced past Tim Howard into his own net by Phil Jagielka.

Despite being unhappy with a point, O’Neill praised his side’s fortitude: “I just thought we were terrific. I thought we kept going and I thought the fitness levels were incredible really considering the same players have been going at it. I thought our resilience was absolutely top class.” If there was a Villa player on the pitch who looked the most threatening for Villa, it was Carew. Although Agbonlahor secured his 15th goal of the season, the No.10’s presence and power upfront was Villa’s most potent threat with Sylvain Distin and Jagielka struggling to dispossess the target man. The Norwegian linked up the play well and always made sure he was available in the box for crosses from either flank. While he was effective at holding up and spreading the play, he still lacked the finishing touch that Villa have been missing.

In defence, however, the Villans were poor. Richard Dunne was at fault for the first goal after letting Tim Cahill evade him to head the ball past Friedel. The Toffees’ second goal came from another set-piece that Villa failed to deal with and an unmarked Cahill duly punished the Midlanders. The Villa manager discussed his side’s poor defensive performance after the game: “We defended those [the set-pieces] poorly I must admit. It’s unusual for us. We have conceded a couple of free-kicks recently.” In recent weeks there has been a certain drop in the performance of the Villa defenders and, unfortunately, the results have reflected this decline.

Many have already written off the Villains in the race for the Champions League place, however, while it remains mathematically possible for the Midlanders to achieve this, O’Neill still remains optimistic: “After tonight, to give ourselves any chance, we would have to win all five. It’s not impossible but it will be tough. We will got to Portsmouth on Sunday and give it everything.” Considering the fact that Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur still face tough fixtures against the likes of Chelsea, Manchester United and Arsenal as well as each other, Villa will definitely fancy their chances if either side falters from now until the end of the season. The Villains most testing fixture will be the trip to City on the penultimate weekend of the season – the other fixtures are visits to lowly-placed Hull and Portsmouth and home matches against Birmingham and Blackburn. However, O’Neill needs to ensure that his players remain consistent in every game if they are to achieve five victories and obtain a place in a European competition next season.

Stiliyan Petrov has vowed that the Villa players are going to “fight until the end” in order to secure a place in Europe. The boys in claret and blue travel to Fratton Park on Sunday and face a relegated Portsmouth who will be fighting for pride, but with City against Manchester United and Tottenham against Chelsea, O’Neill’s side will need to take all three points.

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