Vital Villa Match Report... Villa v Stoke
With the arrival of Stoke City, the Premier league's 2nd most in-form team, all the talk was of a young light-weight Villa side being bullied off the ball and out of the game in this, Villa's last home offering before Christmas. With pint sized pass finder Barry Bannan, ex- League 1 Ashley Westwood linking with Aussie dynamo Holman in midfield and defenders Vlaar and Stevens still on the injury table, the powerhouses of Stoke probably fancied their chances in chalking this up as another win.
Unfortunately for the Potters Aston Villa are learning quickly and improving on the job. They are growing into a well drilled, defensively solid outfit, both physically and mentally tough, hard working and dynamic from front to back for the full 90 minutes. Quite a turn around from the team who capitulated at Southampton three months ago. Paul Lambert is obviously doing what he can to ensure that Villa get their moneys worth. As a result the players now go at it from the first to the last whistle; a side where off-the ball work rate is as vital as their movement with the ball. It as if they have finally realised that as there is no place to hide on a Premier League football field, why bother trying to do so in the first place. Game on then.
Villa dominated this game for close to 70 minutes, restricting Stoke to one measly effort on goal a mis-controlled effort from inside the box which dipped up and over the bar. Brad Guzan, who came and collected expertly all game long, was not forced into a single save for the whole 90 minutes.
A quick look at the stats and you start to understand why. Stoke are the second lowest scorers in the league with 14 goals. In a game they struggled to stay in they looked unlikely to add to that tally as the centre back pairing of Clark and Baker marshalled the Stoke front line out of the game.
The game was set up for Villa to take. However, Stoke City have a pretty mean defensive pairing of their own, in the immense Huth and Shawcross. Only Man City have conceded less goals on the travels around the Premier League. Throw into the mix the fact that Villa are the teams lowest goal scorers with 12 and you have all the ingredients of a classic stalemate.
That the cutting edge is not there is all too obvious and now painfully familiar for Villa who find themselves in 16th place on 15 points, only two points and two places above the drop zone. With away trips to Liverpool and Chelsea upcoming and Spurs due at Villa Park on Boxing day, this was a game that Villa, for all their improvement and work rate, needed to win.
Benteke was again outstanding. The Belgian giant took the ball out of the sky beautifully, held up play, carried, ran and peeled away nicely after each lay-off though could not find the space for that out-and-out chance to smash the ball home. His best effort was a side volley early on, struck with force, though Shawcross was there to meet it with good timing. He would be left to wait to the start of the second half for his next opportunity. Having found himself in space, Matt Lowton headed the ball back across the box though Benteke, with Stoke defenders snapping at his heels, shot the ball straight at Stoke Keeper Begovic.
The home sides chances were probably not going to get better than that so on the 66th minute Villa boss Lambert heralded the changes, bringing on Ireland and Bent for workaholic Holman and master of speed, Gabriel Agbonlahor. Bent received a standing ovation though, for all the applause, the £24 million man found himself unable to influence or even get into the game.
As the game moved into the last ten minutes Villa's pressure seem to wane as the game became the scrappy, aerial dog fight that everyone had dreaded. Stoke began to take their time on the throw and milked any dead ball chance that came their way, sensing that the game had gone. In truth, Stoke manager Tony Pulis, will be happy for the point for Stoke could not compete with Villa in the middle. But for some better penetration Villa could have easily taken all three points. No doubt Paul Lambert will have one eye on the January window as he seeks to find a play maker, the elusive and often most expensive piece to any Premier League puzzle.
However, Villa fans should be pleased with the forward direction and development of their young team. Moreover, as the January window approaches, they will be buoyed by their manager's Midas touch in picking the right players for Aston Villa Football Club. None more so than the sublime Ashley Westwood. The former Crewe man has quickly become Villa's metronome and heartbeat, passing, moving and stroking the ball around with both absurd ease and accuracy.
For £2million Aston Villa have undoubtedly found a gem of a player who, today, left Stoke standing like statues. It was another man of the match performance that left the Villa faithful purring and his manager running out of superlatives for his young Lion. If Paul Lambert can buy the creative vision to add to Westwood's ball movement and pass completion rate, Aston Villa might finally begin to score the goals that they are lacking.
All in, this was another solid defensive performance for a recovering and improving Villa who now look ahead now to two weeks on the road. Next up, the small matter of a cup quarter final against Lambert's former employers -the high flying canary birds of Norwich City.
Room for Improvement: Lichaj