Villa Draw With Black Cats
Stadium Of Light
Attendance: 43 248
Glensider's excellent away match report:
When you look across at your fellow travelling companions at the sound of the half-time whistle, and seriously start discussing as to whether or not your time might have been better spent after all, traipsing around Birmingham city or Sutton Coldfield town centre's, reluctantly getting into the festive spirit as you pick up gifts for relations you never somehow seem to even mention until Yuletide creeps upon you, it’s a safe bet I think that what you have witnessed in the forty-five minutes just presented before you, was hardly designed to fill you full of Christmas cheer.
I can't really say though that we played poorly in the opening half, indeed some of our approach play was neat to watch, if lacking a quality final ball, and a clinical finishing touch. We did though only create two opportunities of note, a long range effort from Craig Gardner, comfortably held by the guy presumed to be better than nine million pound signing Craig Gordon, and a fortieth minute near post jab from John Carew, reacting to an Ashley Young cross, that looked as if it clipped the post. Long before then though we had fallen behind, when a completely unmarked Danny Higginbotham headed home from a corner kick, leaving us all shaking our heads in despair at the ease with which the scorer was allowed to out jump our defenders, allowing the guy to bury his free header past a completely unprotected Scott Carson, a Scott Carson who once again was the subject of the boo's and jeers of the home crowd, following on from England's dismal European Championship exit three weeks or so previous.
To say that we then took control of the game is untrue, but we certainly became the dominant force, without threatening to haul ourselves back level. Having said that, in the five minutes before the break Sunderland came mighty close to doubling, even trebling their lead. They had the ball in the back of our net on about forty two minutes, when after Carson had parried a shot from one of the bad guys, and Freddie Bouma had blocked the follow up, a clearly off side attacker headed home. Then in added time, man-mountain Kenwyne Jones superbly turned Zat Knight, but instead of opting to play the ball to a better placed team-mate, he went for the glory himself, and we were able to breathe again.
Throughout the first half I thought that Ashley Young was arguably our brightest light, his pace and trickery often causing the Black Cats problems, but we just couldn't find the breakthrough, that telling final ball always eluding us. The general consensus amongst the away supporters though was definitely that we had cause for optimism, and that an early second half goal for MON's lads would see us in a healthy position to move on and secure three more away points.
We certainly started the second half in very determined mood, and with the claret and blues attacking our end of the stadium, we waited for the floodgates to open. Within a few minutes we were almost gifted the equaliser, when their goalkeeper (this guy who is supposedly better than Gordon) dropped an Olof Mellberg cross when under very little pressure, and their goalscorer Higginbotham, had to desperately hack Big John Carew's shot off the line.
In my opinion, written without the assistance of t.v. replays, we should have been awarded a spot-kick when Dwight Yorke handled an Ashley Young effort, following good work by Gabby. It was definitely one way traffic now, with the lads looking the more likely next scorers, but the feeling was beginning to grow that maybe this wasn't going to be our day.
MON though was obviously one step ahead of us, and he made his first substitution of the afternoon, sending on Shaun Maloney in place of Craig Gardner. You can say what you like about little Shaun, but he's very definitely a livewire, and when he's on the ball he always looks a good candidate to make things happen.
Within five minutes of his introduction he had done exactly that, and in stunning fashion. He was felled as he attempted to round the ex-Albion defender Paul McShane right on the edge of the box, he picked himself up, dusted himself down, and then stepped up to curl an absolute beauty around the home keeper and into the net. A superb goal. Cue mass celebrations from players and supporters alike.
Now for the winner we all thought. We'll step up our game, and return back down the A1 with three points in the bag. Keane's boys though obviously had other ideas, and pushed forward with intent, but with little real threat. That is until veteran Andy Cole, on as a sub, set up the unmarked Leadbitter, but with a goal looking the obvious outcome, the striker directed his header straight at a very relieved Scotty Carson. The claret and blue support once again, breathed again.
The home supporters were definitely giving it their all, and right at the death they (and us) thought they'd won it. One of their lot (I know not who, nor do I particularly care), headed home to spark mass partying around the impressive Stadium Of Light, only for that very nice referee, Mr Steve Bennett to become the pantomime villain by ruling the strike out, presumably for a foul on Scott Carson. Was it a goal? All I can say is that I don’t know. It was up at the other end, so in this instance I am more than happy to concur with Mr Bennetts decision. Oh, I must add, that upon arrival back home, I've immediately added him (Bennett) to our Christmas card mailing list. If we'd have lost the game though, particularly right at the death, it would have been an injustice. We at least deserved a share of the spoils, and were definitely the better team out there.
So, here we are. Sitting rather pretty on twenty-eight points, and with only one away-day reversal to date this season. Yes, perhaps we should have more points, possibly sit a little bit higher up the league, but we go into the Manchester City game next weekend handily placed for a serious second half of season push towards a top six finish. Get our act together back at Villa Park, start picking up the three points on offer with regularity, and that allied to our away showings, will hopefully see us there or thereabouts. My last away-day report until the Boxing Day trip to Chelsea, so from your on the spot, somewhat biased, travelling Villan, I'll wish you all a very merry one, and here's hoping for three points against Sven's lot next Saturday.