Villa Stalemate v Pompey
Attendance: 37 660
A wise man once said 'It is a funny old game' and so it proved at Villa Park on Saturday against Portsmouth.
The weather was nice, the mood was high and the confidence amongst the Villa fans was tangible, albeit most of us realised it was a game that could go either way and that Pompey will be there or there abouts come the end of the season. Hey, even the pies were hot, this was going to be a good day!
From the start I never really felt that Pompey could quite get hold of the game and despite arguably a far more experienced and capable strike force in Jermain Defoe and Peter Crouch, they rarely troubled our defense. Fair enough in the second half (if memory serves me right) Portsmouth missed a sitter but then, our very own Curtis Davies missed a chance hitting row z of the Holte end when slotting it into an empty goal looked a mere formality (yeah, says the man who couldn't score in a brothel!)
Our defense... hmmmm. Interesting changes by the boss saw what some thought was going to be three at the back but which proved to be a more conventional 442 with Carlos Cuellar at right-back, poor Gareth Barry being shifted from pillar to post again at left-back and Curtis Davis alongside the rock Martin Laursen in the centre. There was also space, by shifting Barry, to keep Nigel Hokey-Cokey in the team and accommodate James Milner. I'm not sure about all these major changes to fit in players, MON does similar when he makes substitutions, convention usually says you make as few changes as you can to achieve the result you want, surely that makes sense?
So we went from an unchanged team to seemingly major changes with our new left and right backs on the bench. Now it isn't that the team didn't gel totally, as said I think we just about shaded the game, but there wasn't the sort of cohesion you would hope for at this stage of the season when they have had more games than most having played in the Inter Toto as well as the Uefa Cup. Carlos for example seemed to be good at defending, worked hard to win the ball and then passed to the invisible man (who also had a bad game) giving possession straight back to Pompey. Now I would argue he was passing to where he expected our strikers to be making runs, but our two up front don't seem to run into attacking spaces, they don't even link up themselves with JC's flick on's hardly ever finding Agbonlahor.
Our main problem - and it has been said before - is the lack of strike power. Last season we were amongst the highest scorers but many of those goals came from set pieces and you would expect our opponents this season to be slightly more aware of our threat. I had thought at the end of the game what a shame it was that Gabby hadn't been fit enough to play only to be told he was on the pitch....! As the phone in with Tom Ross said, Gabby can be what Gabby wants to be, the world is at his feet, but he has to put in 110% ON the field as well as off it and apart from an outstanding hattrick against Man City, he simply isn't doing that at the moment. I'm not knocking him, he has improved season on season but surely there is too much pressure on his head, he is like the Grolsch adverts, he isn't finished yet but he is expected to be banging them in game after game. Our strength in depth is Marlon 'lionheart - but not quite good enough' Harewood. This calls again into question the purchasing policy of the boss - but then that is for another day.
As for John Carew, if only he could do for 90minutes what he does in bursts, he would be awesome. He did have one great header which hit the top of the bar and went over, he also made a few runs, but all too infrequently. For a man with such a big reputation, he certainly doesn't seem to wear his heart on his sleeve. If he had Marlon's attitude with the skill and size Carew has, he'd be on 20 a season no question at all.
I have to be honest, I found the game quite enjoyable, there were some decent tackles flying, lets face it Harry has set up a very physical big team and plenty of incidents (the one being embarrassing for such a great and proud club as ours when some numpty threw a coin towards Harry and instead hit the linesman. No one deserves that. Still, as some will remember from my match report last season, I was hit by a pound coin, apparently the lino was hit by a 50p so this just proves to Labour once again, the credit crunch really is hitting home - sorry, not making light of it, I hope they find the clueless coward who through the coin). So all in all, it certainly wasn't as flat as the score might suggest, but I did feel that although we shut out their strike force, I think we could have played another 90 minutes and still we'd not have had the rub of the green and a goal.
The main hope is that Gabby and JC can start to 'click' and also that James Milner gets a run in the side so that he can get fully integrated because yesterday, apart from a few promising runs, he had a pretty forgettable afternoon. He is soooo much better than that, or at least for the fee we paid, he better be...! Hopefully in time he'll join in with Ashley Young whipping in balls and JC and Gabby will realise that strikers need to a) be in the box b) get to the far post every now and then c) back each other up d) SHOOT e) actually, I'll take the e's.
Bring on Ajax, if the strikers have an on day, the match could be the highlight of the month. Saturday was two points lost, we now need to pick up maximum points from Wigan and Blackburn. What better way to set those games up than an emphatic win against the Dutch giants at a - hopefully - sold out Villa Park.
Brad Friedel 7
Gareth Barry 7
Martin Laursen 8
Curtis Davis 7
Carlos Cuellar 7
Nigel Hokey Cokey 6.5
Ashley Young 6.5
Stiliyan Petrov 8
James Milner 5.5
Gabby Agbonlahor 5.5
John Carew 6
Luke Young, on for Laursen, 87 mins.