Some things money can’t buy

Dave Woodhall reports on Villa’s win at home to Manchester City.

With barely a month gone it’s been a strange season and it’s going to get stranger. Villa have proved themselves capable of matching the best away from home while performing like strangers at Villa Park. University dissertations could be written on the reason why, but it resulted in the possibility on Saturday of yet another unwanted record being set, this time for the worst start to a season at home for decades. When you’re playing Manchester City, favourites for the title and fresh from a 4-1 humiliation of their Stretfordian neighbours, it’s a fair chance that this is what will happen. When you’re without your two top strikers, best defender and most consistent midfielder of last season, damage limitation might be in order.

That thought did cross my mind when I heard the team being read out, with five at the back and a midfield who can defend better than they attack. The first 45 minutes were no better than expected in such circumstances, with Villa rarely crossing the halfway line and attacking threat in even shorter supply. Just when it seemed we might have reached the interval unscathed City got a corner and for a change it wasn’t defended properly.

One down and that record seemed imminent. Three straight defeats, and with Spurs then Everton to come, Villa’s first home points might not be won until November. Then to everyone’s surprise Kharim El Ahmadi is set up by a through ball from the impressive Leandro Bacuna, to even greater surprise the flag stays down and Villa are level. Well, the big clubs do get the breaks don’t we?

There was no surprise about what happened next. Another corner, another unmarked attacker.

And then, with 17 minutes to go, came the moment that could change Villa’s season. Andreas Weimann won a free-kick on the edge of the penalty area, Bacuna stepped up and the ball rose, curled and dipped into the back of the net while England keeper Joe Hart could only look on as stunned as everyone else in the ground.

Two minutes later Guzan’s clearance was missed by tens of millions of poundsworth of defenders, Academy graduate Weimann nipped in, pushed the ball past Hart and had the nerve to run to the Holte End while it was still rolling goalwards.

There were twenty minutes left including a ludicrous amount of stoppage time yet, for all Villa’s supposed defensive fragility, they were never in any serious danger. The three-man defensive unit gave nothing away, with Ron Vlaar looking like the player Paul Lambert had hoped he was. Yacouba Sylla, surely the bargain of last January, came into his own as the game progressed while alongside him Fabian Delph totally outshone another former Leeds player, James Milner (how’s that for a tenuous link?).

The final whistle was met with both relief and jubilation from supporters and players alike, showing that there’s a bond between us all that no amount of oil money can buy. There have been more important wins, and there’ll be more in the future. But for now, this was a vital three points. It’s the first home win and that record won’t be set after all. It takes Villa up to an improbable ninth in the table, and anyone who said when the fixtures were announced that at this stage of the season we’d be above Manchester United and a point behind City would have been advised to lie down in a darkened room.

More than that, it gives the team breathing space. Had they lost another home match the pressure would really have been on next week away at Hull, who’ve started well themselves. After Saturday a point up in the frozen North will be welcome; three will see the Villa in a strong position to face Spurs and Everton at what must now surely be dubbed Fortress Villa Park.