Premier League round-up: Matchday 33

Picture from Who Ate All The Pies 
The Premier League title race might be all but over but the relegation battle certainly is not. An error-strewn Blackpoolperformance has left Ian Holloway’s side in the relegation zone, with Wigan leaping above The Tangerines after a comprehensive 3-1 victory. Roberto Martinez described the win as a “huge victory” and praised his side for controlling the game and continuing to heap pressure on the sides around them. The Latics pressured Blackpool early on and, within three minutes, Hugo Rodallega gave them the lead, capitalising on a lazy Craig Cathcart pass in the middle of the pitch.

The early goal seemed to unsettle the hosts and, just before half-time, Wigan extended their lead, Charles N’Zogbia finishing off an unchallenged run to slot home. The game was finished as a contest by the 66th minute, Diame’s shot going in off Neal Eardley, although DJ Campbell did get a goal back for Blackpool late on.
Wigan are now just above the relegation zone on thirty-four points, with Blackpool below them on thirty-three. Just eight points separates bottom-placed Wolves and Aston Villa, who sit in ninth after a late Gabriel Agbonlahor header gave them victory over struggling West Ham. The Hammers had got off to the perfect start as Robbie Keane gave them the lead after two minutes, but Darren Bent equalised for Gerard Houiller’s side before half-time with a simple header, before Agbonlahor scored from three yards out to ease fears of relegation.
Villa’s local rivals, Birmingham, also recorded a victory, beating out-of-form Sunderland2-0 at St Andrews. Sebastien Larsson gave The Blues the lead and Craig Gardner scored a fine volley midway through the second half, but Sunderland did have their chances; Asamoah Gyan and Lee Cattermole both forced saves from Ben Foster, while Jordan Henderson and Sessegnonalso went close. Sunderland have struggled since Darren Bent left for Villa in January but they have also suffered from injuries, which has clearly knocked the confidence of the Black Cats.
In contrast to Sunderland’s poor run of form, Everton, who had a shocking start to the season, continued their rise up the table with a 2-0 win against a hapless Blackburn. In-form Leon Osman put the Merseysiders in front just after half-time and Leighton Baines smashed home a penalty with fifteen minutes left after Rovers defender Paul Jones brought down Seamus Coleman in the area.
Blackburn rarely threatened, although Pedersen should have scored late on for Steve Kean’s side, who are now just two points above the relegation zone, from six yards out. Everton are now 7th, six points off a Europa League spot.
West Brom have been revitalised under manager Roy Hodgson but The Baggies suffered their first defeat under the former-Liverpool and Blackburn man as Chelsea kept their slip title hopes alive. Peter Odemwingie gave West Brom the dream start with a tidy finish after seventeen minutes, but poor goalkeeping from Scott Carson allowed The Blues back into the game. First, Didier Drogba profited, smashing home from close range and, just four minutes later, Kalou neatly finished to give Carlo Ancelotti’s side the lead.
Foster did redeem himself somewhat with a great save from a Frank Lampard freekick but the midfielder was not to be denied his tenth goal of the season, finishing off well after a splendid solo run from Florent Malouda. Chelsea did hit the bar late on and Fernando Torres had a goal ruled out for offside but the points were in the bag; they are now eight points behind leaders Manchester United. West Brom are 11th, six points above the drop zone and surely safe.
On Sunday, Arsenal and Liverpool both left it late to register a goal each. Robin Van Persie fired home a penalty after Jay Spearing had fouled Cesc Fabregas in the box in the eighth minute of injury-time, surely securing the win for The Gunners. Three points would have kept Arsenal’s slim title hopes alive but, after Emmanuel Eboue clumsily fouled Lucas in Arsenal’s penalty area, Dirk Kuyt smashed in the penalty to equalise in the twelfth minute of added-on time.
Matchday 33 results: Birmingham 2-0 Sunderland; Blackpool 1-3 Wigan; Everton 2-0 Blackburn; West Brom 1-3 Chelsea; West Ham 1-2 Aston Villa; Arsenal-Liverpool
(Manchester United face Newcastle on Tuesday night, with ChelseaBirmingham and TottenhamArsenal the following night. Manchester City defeated local rivals United 1-0 on Saturday in the FA Cup, with Stoke thrashing Bolton 5-0 in the other semi-final.)
Matchday 34 fixtures: Manchester United-Everton; Aston Villa-Stoke; Blackpool-Newcastle; Liverpool-Birmingham; Sunderland-Wigan; Tottenham-West Brom; Wolves-Fulham; Chelsea-West Ham; Bolton-Arsenal; Blackburn-Manchester City.
This article originally appeared on Sports Haze.

City frustrated as Villa revival begins

Darren Bent scores on his Aston Villa debut as Manchester City drop vital points in the Premier League. 

Bent celebrates his debut goal
(Picture courtesy of Sky Sports)

When the January transfer window is in full-swing, it is sometimes possible to forget that matches are actually played in the first month of the new year. Darren Bent’s transfer from high-flying Sunderland to relegation battling Aston Villa mystified many but mainly angered Black Cats boss Steve Bruce, yet it was the striker who scored the only goal of the game at Villa Park.
Manager Gerard Houllier didn’t waste any time in testing out his new acquisition, putting Bent up front on his own, although Gabriel Agbonlahor, Ashley Young and Marc Albrighton were all quick to support when needed.

The build-up to the game had largely involved the comparison of Bent and Manchester City new-boy Edin Dzeko as both have been signed for fees of potentially £20 million upwards and both have superb scoring records in their respective leagues. The game, though, was not a match for attacking play. Villa were resolute and determined at the back and broke away on the counter-attack well, while City, by and large, struggled to create clear-cut chances and, when they did, they were wasted by a rather off-colour Carlos Tevez as well as lacklustre attacking options.

Villa, though, deserve a lot of credit. The central defensive partnership of Richard Dunne and James Collins seemed unbreakable for large parts of the game while, on either side of the defence, Carlos Cuellar and Ciaran Clark were solid defensively and useful going forward.

Roberto Mancini’s side’s defence, in comparison, has looked very frail in recent weeks, conceding seven goals in their last three games and the defence was again at fault for the opening goal. A misunderstanding inside City’s half meant that Young could pounce on the loose ball and, after his low shot was well saved by Joe Hart, Bent, in true poacher fashion, tapped home from four yards as the Villans welcomed a new hero.

City needed a response and they almost got one through centre-back Vincent Kompany, but the Belgian’s header was well dealt with by ‘keeper Brad Friedel who calmly tipped the ball over the bar. The chance had come from an Aleksander Kolarov corner and it was his set-pieces that were causing the most havoc inside the Villa penalty area, although Gareth Barry went close with a header just before the break in a first half lacking in chances.

City’s passing (see chalkboard below) was much better than Villa’s in the first half (85% pass completion for the Blues and 65% for Houllier’s side) but the team struggling at the bottom of the table very much frustrated the title-challenging club in the first half. Mancini’s side were successful in their passing in the middle of the pitch but, because of Villa’s set-up, they struggled to get into the final third and, when they did, the final ball wasn’t good enough.

 by Guardian Chalkboards

At the start of the second half, City attempted to get the ball forward a lot quicker with Tevez volleying hopelessly wide just a minute after the break after Nigel De Jong’s simple ball over the top.

Manchester City have been described as one-dimensional this season and, with their centralised set-up clearly failing, Mancini decided to haul Gareth Barry off for winger Adam Johnson, much to the delight of Villa fans who gave their former captain a lot of stick throughout the match. The substitution meant that City were slightly uneven in their formation, with Johnson operating mainly out on the right wing while David Silva and Yaya Toure pushed up through the middle. De Jong did a fine job in sitting as a defensive midfielder in what was his first meeting with referee Howard Webb after the infamous World Cup final (which saw the Dutchman sent off by Webb) but, with Kolarov unable to break forward quite as often and quickly as he would have liked, Dzeko was pulled out wide, leaving Tevez on his own up front.

The difference was that Villa had two hard-working wingers and two competent full-backs. Both Albrighton and Agbonlahor were happy to defend as well as push forward on the counter-attack, while Clark and Cuellar made for very difficult opposition for any player on the City wings.

Young continued in his central role at home for Villa and it was from this position that he nearly scored after sixty-five minutes. After getting away from De Jong twenty-five-year-old fired a shot towards the bottom corner of Hart’s goal, only for the England number one to thwart his international teammate with a fine stop.

While Villa were resilient defensively, they were not so radiant going forward especially in-so-far as the final ball. Albrighton (see chalkboard below) was particularly poor at times, getting into decent positions only to waste it by putting in a disappointing cross, the worst one coming with twenty minutes to go, firing over everyone in the box with Bent in a good goalscoring position.
The game seemed to dwindle out after the seventieth minute, although a De Jong effort from 20 yards would have crept into the bottom corner had it not been for the fortunate Clark. It was Villa, though, who had the final chance of the match, Young going close from three yards after good build-up play.

The win means that Villa are now three points above the relegation zone and, with Wigan, Blackpool and Blackburn all three of the four upcoming fixtures for Houllier, it looks as if the turn-around could be in full-swing in a few weeks time. City now lie third in the table, now three points behind local rivals Manchester United who have a game in hand, the first of which is Blackpool on Tuesday.

The result doesn’t mean that Villa’s problems are over, but a strong defensive performance against a good attacking side such as Manchester City is certainly promising and, if Houllier can hold on to players such as Young, Downing and Agbonlahor and get them all back to top-form, Villa could have a ferocious front-line, spearheaded by the eighteen million pound man – Darren Bent.

Aston Villa 1 – 0 Manchester City
Bent (18)

Darren Bent to Villa: A good move, but for whom?

Picture courtesy of Sky Sports

What’s the motivation for Darren Bent’s reported transfer to Aston Villa, from all three parties?

The January transfer window finally roared into action today with the news that Sunderland’s Darren Bent has handed in a transfer request and looks set to join Aston Villa for an initial fee of £18 million. The move is something of a strange one for Bent, who is yet to hit top form for Steve Bruce’s side this season, as Sunderland currently lie 6th in the table and are vying for a European spot, while Villa are struggling in 17th, effectively fighting a relegation battle.
The news of Bent’s proposed transfer must have come as a shock to Villa fans as much as it did everyone else, partly because of the player in question but mainly because of the fee. Before the start of this season, Martin O’Neill left the club because of a disagreement over transfer funds with Villa owner Randy Lerner. Now though, with Gerard Houllier at the helm, it seems that Lerner wants to make it clear to Villa fans that he’s not afraid to spend some money. While Bent isn’t worth £18 million, this move is a clear statement of intent from the owner as many fans were starting to doubt his commitment to the cause. Bent will, as his goalscoring history would suggest, provide the much-needed firepower to an Aston Villa side that has been so lacking in goals this season; his goals could easily keep the side in the Premier League which is, of course, priceless.

While many will question the transfer fee in question, no one can doubt Bent’s goalscoring prowess (his career goals can be seen in the above graph); in the past few years Bent has scored 81 goals, just one behind Wayne Rooney and Didier Drogba. If you take into account the fact that Rooney and Drogba have played for better sides in that time, the signing of the 26-year-old is a brilliant move from Houllier. One of Villa’s biggest problems this season is scoring goals and, with Gabriel Agbonlahor and John Carew still yet to score in the league this season, Bent would be required to not only score the goals himself but also link up well with Agbonlahor and Carew, although it is thought that the latter could soon leave the club himself. What is baffling, though, is the rumoured departures of two key players: Stewart Downing and Ashley Young. For Bent to succeed he is going to need service and, while Marc Albrighton looks to be an intuitive creative player, selling two of the more experienced inventive players seems slightly odd.
The transfer alone is a good move for Aston Villa, but is it a clever move from Sunderland and Bruce? The transfer fee was clearly too good to turn down and the money will give the club the funds to buy a few players as they continue to push for European football, but selling your best attacking asset is a huge risk halfway through the season. The departure of Bent will mean that Sunderland can finally deploy record signing Asamoah Gyan into their starting line-up on a regular basis, while loanee Danny Welbeck is sure to see first-team action week-in, week-out when he returns from a hamstring injury in a couple of weeks.
Gyan and Welbeck have both been big hits for the Stadium of Light club since joining in the summer, scoring fourteen goals between them, but Bent, even though he isn’t exactly on top form like he was last season (25 goals in 40 games), has scored eleven goals in this campaign so far. While the money is brilliant, losing a key player in the middle of a season which could easily result in European football next term is a huge risk taken by Bruce and chairman Niall Quinn.
Perhaps the strangest decision, however, has come from the striker himself, who seems desperate to leave a club sitting in sixth position in the Premier League for a side who are realistic relegation candidates. Whether there are personal reasons for the move remains unclear but, at the moment, it simply looks as if Bent wants to move for footballing reasons. If the striker helps to steer Villa away from the drop this season then he will, of course, be seen as a hero, which could be viewed as added motivation for the transfer, but Bent would surely gain the same status if he were to stay in the North East and help Sunderland claim a Europa League spot?
The transfer has come as a complete shock to most football fans and pundits as the swap of a top-eight club for a team struggling at the bottom (although Houllier will turn it around with the likes of Bent and new signing Jean Makoun at his disposal) of the league seems nothing short of peculiar. But from a Sunderland perspective the money is clearly too good to turn down and from a Villa point of view it is clearly a brilliant signing. On the other hand, just as Bent seemed to be in a comfortable place having got his career back on track, the move is definitely an unusual one. 

Villa brought back down to earth by Rapid performance

Aston Villa were dumped out of the Europa League after a disappointing performance in the final play-off against Rapid Vienna.

Gabriel Agbonlahor scored on his return to the side within twenty minutes but Vienna striker Atdhe Nuhiu headed home after half-time to level the scores, both on the night and on aggregate.
Stiliyan Petrov wasted a great opportunity to regain control for Villa when the midfielder missed a penalty with half-an-hour to go, but a rare Emile Heskey goal put them back in front.
In an exciting finish, though, the Austrian side scored twice within three minutes to reach the Europa League.
After earning a draw in Austria last week, caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald chose to go with a more experienced side to that from the first leg. Stephen Ireland made his European debut for Villa after a disappointing Premier League debut against Newcastle at the weekend. Villa were outclassed and thumped 6-0 by the newly-promoted side and MacDonald clearly thought that he needed to field his best team against Austria’s most successful side.
Vienna’s star men from the first leg were Steffen Hofmann and Nuhiu and both players were present for the game at Villa Park with captain Hofmann playing behind the lone striker.
As Villa continue life without an appointed manager, after Martin O’Neil left just days before the start of the Premier League season, the Midlands club may find this season an unpredictable one as clubs around them in the League have strengthened well, whereas Villa, and owner Randy Lerner, have been very shrewd in their business this summer. This game, then, was hugely important to Aston Villa as they looked to put the weekend behind them and push on with their season.
Much like last week’s encounter, the game had a dreary, slow start. There were few chances in the first half, with a Collins header going wide with sixteen minutes on the clock. An Ashley Young free kick was then well saved after the English midfielder fired a shot towards goal from twenty-five yards and it was Young who created the first goal of the game.
On an awfully wet pitch Young breezed past Rapid left-back Markus Katzer and put in a low cross which was met by Agbonlahor, who finished off accordingly. The goal was the forward’s first strike of the season but his game was ended earlier than expected as the striker was forced to come off with an injury just before half-time. Starlet Marc Albrighton was brought on, meaning that Emile Heskey had to play up front on his own, with Young and the young substitute on the flanks.
Albrighton has shown great promise with recent performances in the first team for Villa and the English midfielder, who has been called up to Stuart Pearce’s England Under-21 side recently, started brightly with a great run, darting in-and-out and skipping past various players. The former Villa youth player, though, could only manage a poor shot at the end of a promising run.
Villa seemed to be in control of the match but, within six minutes of the second half, the nightmares of last season seemed to be resurrecting themselves. Rapid dumped Villa out of the same competition at the same time last year and so, when Nuhiu headed home from five yards, the Villa faithful feared the worst. Poor defending by Habib Beye, who was playing in an unusual left-back position, let Veli Kavlak in to hit a great cross into the area, which was met by the powerful Nuhiu.
Villa lacked real authority in midfield with Nigel Reo-Coker and Ireland failing to run the centre of the pitch. Ireland was the creative spark for Villa on occasions but Reo-Coker really should have scored on the hour mark after a Heskey cross had, eventually, fallen to the former West Ham midfielder. Reo-Coker couldn’t re-adjust his feet, though, and the ball rolled past the post.
Heskey has been something of a scapegoat in the last few seasons, with the main criticism being his lack of goals. The striker, who has retired from England duty after a poor World Cup, was brought down in the area by Mario Sonnleitner, giving Petrov the chance to score from the spot. The former Celtic midfielder hit a poor penalty which was then followed up by a shocking miss from Heskey, who hit the ball into the ground and over.
Heskey, though, made amends soon after. After a cross was cleared by the Rapid defence the ball fell to Beye who, from twenty-five yards, took a crack at goal. The shot seemed to be going wide but Heskey got his big frame in front of the ball and managed to bend his body to chest the ball into the net. The goal should have secured Villa’s progression into the Europa League, but the English side did not manage to settle after the celebrations.
A Rapid corner was flicked on Sonnleitner stooped down to header the ball towards goal. The shot was saved by Brad Guzan but somehow trickled into the net and the goal meant that, if the score remained as it was, Rapid would go through on away goals.
Vienna did not sit back, however, and two minutes later, with ten minutes left, substitute Rene Gartler finished off a swift, flowing move, tapping in from two yards.
Villa can have no complaints about their departure from the tournament; MacDonald put out a perfectly good side yet the players simply did not perform. The Villains will now have to concentrate on the Premier League and other cup competitions, while Lerner will be looking to install a new manager relatively soon.
Aston Villa 2 – 3 Rapid Vienna
Agbonlahor 21      Nuhiu 51
Heskey 76            Sonnleitner 78
                             Gartler 80

MacDonald’s boys earn away draw in Austria

Aston Villa managed a draw against Rapid Vienna in a Europa League play-off as they continued life without Martin O’Neil.

An early goal from youngster Barry Bannan had put Villa in front but Rapid striker Nuhiu equalised with a deft touch.
After O’Neil’s timely departure from Villa Park the Midlands side will have been happy with a 3-0 win over a woeful West Ham United at the weekend. Caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald chose to ring the changes for this match, with only three players retaining their place in the first eleven from the game against the Hammers. Left-back Eric Lichaj and central midfielder Jonathan Hogg made their debuts, while Nigel Reo-Coker, Marc Albrighton and Curtis Davies getting chances to show their worth. MacDonald was clearly looking towards the game at the weekend, Newcastle, when he picked this side as many key players, such as Ashley Young, John Carew and Luke Young were all left out.
Austria’s most successful side defeated Villa this time last season and fielded a strong side with manager Peter Pacult deciding to play two defensive midfielders and three attacking midfielders, who swapped and changed when supporting lone striker Hamdi Salihi.
Despite the lack of experience in the Villa side the Premier League club started well and the deadlock was broken within ten minutes. Albrighton, who has impressed with some good first team appearances recently, stormed down the wing after neat play by Emile Heskey, who started up front on his own. Albrighton breezed past Rapid left-back Markus Katzer, putting the Austrian on the floor. His ball across the box was met by Barry Bannan in the middle, who tapped in from two yards to score his first goal for Villa.
Villa were never really in control of the game and Vienna should have equalised just before the twenty minute mark. After a Thomas Hinum shot was deflected wide Steffen Hofmann put in a corner which landed on Nuhiu’s head perfectly. The striker, though, could head wide, with plenty of time and space available.
The forward, though, made up for his earlier miss with a goal. A Hofmann cross was dealt with poorly by the Villa defence and, after a slight flick from Salihi, the ball bounced into the net, past a hapless Brad Guzan in goal. Nuhiu was the man at the back post and he was given the goal for the slightest of touches. Habib Beye, Lichaj and Davies should have coped with the cross better.
Hofmann was proving to be a thorn in Aston Villa’s side and the Rapid captain volleyed wide after an attempted Davies clearance and, just before half time, the German had a free kick saved by Guzan. The sides went into half time level and neither side really deserved any sort of lead.
The second half was very tight, lacking any real chances. Villa did attempt to change the game by bringing on promising young player Nathan Delfouneso for goal scorer Bannan but the game had well-and-truly thinned out. A draw away in Austria is a good result for Villa and the away goal could prove important. If they play their first team at Villa Park, though, they should beat Vienna based on tonight’s performance.
Rapid Vienna 1 – 1 Aston Villa
Nuhiu 32                    Bannan 11

Premier League Preview: Aston Villa

My Premier League previews continue with the focus on Aston Villa. Manager Martin O’Neill steered them to an impressive sixth place finish last season. Can they better that this season?

A relatively quiet summer, in terms of transfers, for Villa shows how confident Martin O’Neill is in his team. In Richard Dunne and Stephen Warnock at the back Villa have two solid defenders who are incredibly difficult to get past with their strength, effort and determination. Carlos Cuellar is also a hard worker although can, at times, have serious lapses in concentration. 
      The experience and quality of Brad Friedel in goal, however, more than makes up for this. The American has been a fine servant to the Premier League over the years and continues to prove himself to be one of the best ‘keepers in the league. Another experienced player, Stiliyan Petrov, provides more assurance and strength for Aston Villa when defending.
     It is going forward, however, where they really come to life. With the frightening speed of Gabriel Agbonlahor and Ashley Young, as well as the quality of crossing coming from Young, Stewart Downing and James Milner, Villa are sure to make chances. To get on the end of those chances they have John Carew, who is proven to score goals at this level and has become something of a cult hero for the home fans. Former England international Emile Heskey could also be used by O’Neill, with the former Liverpool striker being a useful option to bring players such as Young and Agbonlahor into the game more. 
    The biggest worry for Villa is if Milner does leave for big-spending Manchester City, following continuous speculation that the England World Cup player could be about to leave Villa Park for a fee of around £20 million. Milner could play a major part in Villa’s success next season as he holds the key to unlocking defences. This coming season could be a great one for Downing who was plagued with injury at the start of the season but, when he recovered, he showed the quality that he has in his locker. 
    One to watch in the 2010/11 season for Villa is Nathan Delfouneso. The young striker has been trying to force his way into the first team for a few years now and at 19 years of age this season could be the one for the former Villa youth team player. Aston Villa’s biggest problem in the last few seasons has been the inability to last, physically and mentally, through to the end of the season. For the last few years they have started well, leaving many to tout them to break into the top four. O’Neill will be hoping that, this season, his side will go the distance. With the resurgence of Liverpool and big-spending Manchester City, though, Villa may struggle to retain their sixth place position.

EDIT: Martin O’Neil has now resigned from the post of Aston Villa manager. Unless Villa can get a decent manager to come in (Martin Jol or USA manager Bob Bradley are the favourites), the Midlands club will definately struggle to make it into the top six.

Where will they finish?: 7th
Official top-four finish odds: 8/1 (Bet 365)
Star man: James Milner
One to watch: Nathan Delfouneso
Main weakness: Running out of steam