Before yesterdays' game between Stoke City and Aston Villa at the Britannia Stadium the two teams were separated by just four points; a win for Villa would not only ease some pressure on themselves but also heap more onto Stoke for the final run-in. With Villa winning two of their last three games and Stoke having won none of the last five, only scoring one goal in the process, all signs pointed to an away win. When has the form guide really mattered though?
Paul Lambert started with a very attacking team, with four recognisable strikers on the pitch in an attempt to surround Christian Benteke with the kind of support that he thrives off. Andreas Weimann, Gabriel Agbonlahor and Jordan Bowery all accompanied the giant Belgian on the team-sheet.
Rather surprising then that Stoke were by far the better team in the opening 10 minutes, making Villa defend deep early on and recycling possession well. Jon Walters’ had a penalty appeal turned down when the ball struck Nathan Baker’s arm and Villa were fortunate to get away with it - no intent but his arm was away from his body. Things weren’t looking too good for Villa until their first meaningful attack reaped instant rewards and shocked the Britannia crowd. Bowery, making a rare start, found Matt Lowton who managed to dance past a Stoke defence to the by-line before cutting the ball back for Agbonlahor in the six-yard box. Gabby’s first time effort bounced fortuitously back off a Stoke defender into his own path and all that left was for the in-form striker to side-foot past a hapless Asmir Begovic.
Agbonlahor has recently found his scoring boots again after a barren 18 month spell and that goal takes him up to 60 Premier League goals for Villa, equalling Dwight Yorke’s record and making him one of the most successful strikers in the club’s recent history.
Goals change games, so the experts say anyway.
Villa’s confidence grew stronger and the away side started playing some lovely football, leaving their opponents chasing shadows for the rest of the half. Weimann hit the post and Gabby decided to dive rather than score when one-on-one with Begovic, which rightly got him cautioned. Villa could have been three up by half-time and the feeling amongst the fans’ was that we were going to regret not taking our chances. Sure enough, it happened. With the reverse fixture back in December a full 20 games ago being Villa’s last clean sheet, and one of the most boring games of football I’ve ever had to endure, Stoke scoring seemed pretty probable despite their deplorable record of late.
Substitute Michael Kightly slammed home from 12 yards after 80 minutes due to some slack Villa defending and for the next few minutes it was all Stoke. It was only ever going to end one way. Except it didn’t. Villa have been in that situation many times before in this campaign and rarely have they produced the last 10 minutes that we saw today.
A sliced clearance by Dean Whitehead after a corner was taken on the chest by Lowton before being volleyed over Begovic from fully 30-yards in an indescribably brilliant strike on the 87th minute. The game wasn’t over there though and in injury time, Benteke pounced on a loose ball before rounding Ryan Shawcross on the halfway line. Villa broke in huge numbers and by the time Benteke had reached the penalty spot, it was Begovic v four Villa players; Benteke didn’t need them though and slotted home for his 10th goal in his last 12 games and taking his tally up to 19 goals in an incredible debut season that nobody had predicted. That’s the sort of blistering form that is seeing him linked with some of Europe’s top clubs.
Stoke fans are noted for their tolerance (they’d have to be to endure that style of play, right?) and for Britannia Stadium being a fortress. The two are probably linked and as soon as Villa had taken an early lead, The Potters’ fans were on their teams back, booing and jeering. This played perfectly into Villa’s hands. I never understand it myself, I just don’t see how booing your own team can ever be positive or productive, but hey-ho.
Despite being a tough season as a Villa fan, there have been a large number of bright sparks to keep us positive. Matt Lowton, Christian Benteke and Ashley Westwood are amongst them but the lesser credited Brad Guzan’s influence on this team this season and today in particular should not be underestimated.
One of the earliest memories I have of Guzan in a Villa shirt is the League Cup semi-final against Blackburn in 2010 and his clear weakness at the time was that he was a bit of a liability from set-pieces, often coming with little confidence and creating more danger than if he’d let his defenders sort it out. This season and match though, it’s one of his biggest strengths and a key asset. His commanding presence and safe hands saved the Villa defence a hell of a lot of work and vindicated Lambert’s decision to drop Given for the American stopper way back in September. As if it hadn’t already been vindicated.
So Villa are now three points clear of the drop zone and have dragged Sunderland right down into the mire. With Fulham, Wigan and Sunderland all left to play in their last six games, Villa’s fate is definitely in their own hands and should they achieve survival this season and keep key players for next year, you can’t help but be optimistic that these young guns could be the core of a very good squad for years to come.