Playing for pride

Dave Woodhall watches Villa gain a point and drop two.

Off the pitch the big news this week has been the appointment of Steve Hollis as Villa chairman and Randy Lerner’s part-apology for the calamities of the past five years. Hollis has no football background, but that seems to be a prerequisite in modern football, at least at Villa Park. He appears to be saying the right things; we shall see what difference he makes in the long-term.
In the short term Villa have to salvage whatever they can from the season, which means having to put up with the painful business of watching the match, invariably in weather conditions that make me long for the advent of summer football. Has there ever been a time when there’s been so much matchday rain?

We got some more on Saturday, for a freezing cold 5.30 kick off where the spectre of Martin O’Neill dominated the match. Arguments continue to rage over how much of Villa’s ongoing catastrophes can still be blamed on him continue, while his style of play can be seen through the Leicester side that went top of the league as a result of this draw.

Leicester are limited in the extreme – a rigid 442, closing down when the opposition have got the ball then hitting it long on the counter. We saw it often enough when O’Neill was in charge at Villa and here it is now, if anything more effective under Claudio Ranieri than the Irishman ever achieved. Leicester have no-one of the ability of Ashley Young or James Milner, yet here they are well into the second half of the season still challenging for the title. It says a lot about the Premier League that they haven’t been found out yet.

They turned up at Villa Park with the confidence of a side who are having everything go their way, and for most of the first half it did. The inevitable defensive lapse gave them a goal, they should have gone two up when a very debatable penalty was saved by Mark Bunn and at half-time it seemed that the Villa revival was destined to begin and end after last Tuesday’s win against Palace.

And then, Villa decided that they had another gear to step up after all. For most of the second half it was they who did the pressing, the harrying, although the lack of a cutting edge was clear throughout. Sometimes, though, a sledgehammer can cut where an edge can’t and so it proved in the shape of Rudy Gestede, someone else whose abilties are limited but surprisingly effective in the right circumstances.

There was a suspicion of handball about Gestede’s equaliser, although Leicester can’t claim to be hard done by after referee Roger East ignored Robert Huth’s late assault on Libor Kozak. In the end a draw was probably a fair result, and although it does Villa no real favours it will go a long way to restoring some more of the pride that has been lacking since August. It also says a lot about the way the team has suddenly started shaping up that a point against opposition who are doing so well was almost seen as a disappointment. As a few people have said, if only we’d started playing like this even a month ago the season could have turned out far differently.

Next up are Wycombe, and if Villa are anywhere near as good as they have been in the past two games the horror show of the original tie should be forgotten with a straightforward replay win. And to avoid tempting fate I’ll repeat the word ‘if’.