A feeling of nervousness hangs heavy in the air at Villa Park this afternoon. The four teams below Aston Villa have already lost this weekend, but home supporters may already point to their primary concern being that there are as few as four teams below them in the Premier League at this point of the season in the first place. Aston Villa have slid almost unnoticed into the fiercest relegation dog-fight in years and, while their draw at Goodison Park last weekend was an improvement of sorts, this is a team drained of confidence. At this point in the season, though, confidence is an asset the value of which cannot be understated.
That Newcastle United should be the visitors here this afternoon is somewhat ironic, of course. It was at Villa Park two years ago that they were relegated from the Premier League, to near-universal mockery. That stinging feeling has been somewhat assuaged by their immediate return and a comparatively successful season this year but, while to have already beaten Aston Villa by six goals earlier this season may have exorcised a ghost or two, perhaps full closure may require a little more of the same this afternoon. With their Premier League survival not quite secured yet, supporters of Villa’s relegation rivals will presumably be hoping that the need for another win or two as security and a few long memories amongst the Newcastle players today will be enough to keep Villa’s supporters on the edge of their seats for a few more weeks yet.
That Villa Park should be somewhday at muted at kick-off today is unsurprising, and it takes the Premier League’s current pantomime-villain-in-chief, Joey Barton, to bring them to life at all. Barton may as well be wearing a mask and cape this afternoon. Every touch of the ball that he has is met with a hearty cry of, “Joey Barton is a wanker, is a wanker” (we will presume that none of those singing that were crying faux outrage over Wayne Rooney’s indiscretion last week) and, in turn, Barton seems to thrive off the attention. It takes twenty minutes or so for the game to properly get going – a header over from Barton is the best chance of the opening stages of the match – but it feels as if Newcastle aren’t going to exert too much energy this afternoon (although even they, although in ninth place in the table, aren’t mathematically safe just yet) and that the three points are there for the taking for Villa, if the team can get over its own sense of inferiority.
After twenty-five minutes Villa take the lead and, predictably enough, Barton is involved. His foul on Ashley Young seems a touch harsh, but Young picks himself up, curls the ball into the Newcastle United penalty area and James Collins’ deft flick carries the ball past Steve Harper and in. For the remainder of the half, Newcastle continue to dominate, but they do so with the strike power of an antique blunderbuss and Brad Friedel continues to have a quiet time in the Villa goal. Shortly before half-time, the porousness of the Newcastle defence is again exposed with a prodded through ball for Darren Bent, who rolls the ball in only for the linesman’s flag to call play back. The Sky Sports commentary team, doing their best for the tattered remains of the FA’s Respect campaign, immediately call the flag as incorrectly raised. It’s easy, this refereeing lark, with the benefit of a couple of different camera angles and a slow motion machine.
As the players start the second half, Sky’s touchline reporter claims to have spoken to Gerard Houllier and Darren Bent, who are outraged by the offside call, but Villa don’t need this sort bare-faced attempt to create “controversy” surrounding this match. Indeed, they start the second half more brightly than they finished the first and, four minutes in, Gabriel Agbonlahor cuts in from the left and sees his shot beaten away by Harper. A couple of minutes later, Ashley Young’s daisy-cutter from twenty yards fizzes inches wide of Harper’s right-hand post. This is much better from Aston Villa. They look more effervescent, more confident and more composed than in the first half, whilst, by contrast, Newcastle seem to have started their summer holidays early.
The minutes tick by, however, and the second, nerve-settling goal doesn’t come for Aston Vila, who continue to create half-chances without ever looking as if they will pull out of sight. In the final ten minutes, Newcastle manage a couple of corner kicks, but they have been blunt in attack all afternoon and the quiet that descends upon Villa Park as the ball enters the thirty yards or so from their goal doesn’t last for long. With five minutes left to play, and presumably with one eye on hanging on for that three points, Houllier introduces the fifty-three year-old Robert Pires for a cameo appearance. Sky’s cameras, meanwhile, choose to linger on shots of Villa supporters with their chins pensively rested in their hands.
With ninety seconds of the ninety minutes left comes Newcastle’s big chance. A lofted ball into the penalty parts the Villa defence like Moses parting the Red Sea, but Peter Lovenkrands’ downward header is smothered by Friedel. It’s a reminder of how fragile Villa’s position is and Newcastle start to finally show a little urgency as we enter stoppage time, but they have been impotent in attack for much of the second half and Aston Villa deserve their win. It wasn’t pretty, but at this stage of the season such considerations have to take a back seat to the altogether more prosaic matter of grinding out wins. Surprisingly, they are now just two points behind Newcastle and are up to fourteenth place in the table. Another win or two, and their safety will be guaranteed. Newcastle United, meanwhile, will continue to snatch occasional, nervous glances over their own shoulders.
The concept of being “too good to go down” is, of course, a relative position rather than an absolute one. At present, there are certainly perhaps five, six or seven teams around or below Aston Villa who are considerably more prone to relegation than they are. They are not completely safe yet and the matter of whether they should have been in the position in which they have found themselves over the last few weeks is a quite different one altogether. Today, however, well… at least they have done enough. No more, no less. They’re not out of the woods completely just yet, but the claret and blue quartier of Birmingham will probably sleep better tonight than they have in recent weeks.
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