Club Focus – Aston Villa – Milner fires Villans back into the race for fourth

For the first time this season the Aston Villa were on the receiving end of a controversial penalty decision and the resultant goal saw them narrowly defeat their fierce city rivals. More significantly, the three points meant that Martin O’Neill’s side leapfrogged Manchester City up to fifth place, level on points with Tottenham.

Martin O’Neill perfectly summed up match as a “major victory” for Villa, particularly in the context of the battle for fourth place. The fierce atmosphere surrounding Villa Park during the local derby only amplified the importance of the game with Villa in the hunt for Champions League qualification and Birmingham City looking to establish their highest points tally in the Premier League. Consequently, the game was an open affair from the first whistle with both sides creating chances at either end.

Despite the fact Villa enjoyed the majority of the possession, it was the visitors who enjoyed the better of the chances and perhaps on another day would have left Villa Park with maximum points. The Blues had the first chance of the game on nine minutes, after Lee Bowyer exchanged passes with Cameron Jerome to create the room for a neat ball through to Sebastian Larsson whose touch took him wide after Brad Friedel dashed from his line and he sliced behind from a tight angle. Larsson then took advantage of a poor touch by Richard Dunne to dispossess the Villa defender and shoot tamely at goal, however, Friedel managed to smother the loose ball. Stiliyan Petrov and Stewart Downing both came close for the home side with long-range efforts while James Collins’ left-foot volley was brilliantly flicked over the crossbar by Joe Hart. In the second half, Carlos Cuellar deflected James McFadden’s left-footed effort around the post before Downing cleared Liam Ridgewell’s header off the line. In the 67th minute Friedel blocked Lee Bowyer’s effort to prevent the visitors from taking a deserved lead. Afterwards, O’Neill was quick to praise the heroics of his American goalkeeper: “Brad was sensational, absolutely sensational. All his ability and all his experience came to the fore, in the second half particularly.”

With Joe Hart and Brad Friedel producing excellent goalkeeping performances, it appeared as though the game was to end in stalemate until Roger Johnson was adjudged to illegally bring down Gabriel Agbonlahor in the penalty area in the 81st minute. Video replays suggests that Johnson clearly got the ball as he went to ground with Gabriel Agbonlahor, however Martin Atkinson must have pointed to the spot on the view of the two players colliding rather than the path of the ball. Milner stepped up to take the penalty and the England international emphatically struck it straight down the middle, beyond the grasp of Hart who dived to his left.

Birmingham City manager, Alex McLeish, had every right to feel aggrieved at the decision which went in Villa’s favour, especially after his side looked the more likely to score. “He clearly wasn’t up with the play,” McLeish said. “Because of Agbonlahor on the break it is difficult for referees to keep up but it wasn’t a clear-cut decision and you can’t give it if you’re not sure.” O’Neill, on the other hand, spoke about the significance of the victory: “We have qualified for Europe as a result of winning, we can’t finish any worse than seventh. And with two games to go we are still in the mix.” The Midlanders have achieved three consecutive victories in the space of a week and have picked up a total of 13 points out of a possible 15 since their 7-1 defeat to Chelsea last month. Such form and such consistency has put the Villans right back in the race for the Champions League spot and they have a chance to enhance their claim for fourth place with a victory away at Eastlands against Manchester City. Any result other than a victory would hinder their top four aspirations, while a defeat would almost certainly ensure that O’Neill’s men will only be playing Europa League football next season.

After scoring his 12th goal of the season, James Milner picked up the Professional Footballers’ Association Young Player of the Year award. The accolade was awarded to the England international after his impressive performances in central midfield for Villa were recognised by his peers.“To receive it is obviously fantastic,” Milner said. “There are so many top players about so to be voted the best, I can’t really describe it, it’s brilliant.” He then claimed that his success came about due to his changed position: “I’ve been moved into the middle and that suits me as it helps me influence the game a bit more.”

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