Back and forth it went: first up Paintsil collapsed to meet a Downing cross and nodded in his third own goal of the season (13 mins). Then AJ reacted quickly to a Friedel parry and headed bravely home for 1-1 (52). Then Kyle Walker (the furthest man back at the time) picked up a loose ball, beat Sidwell and blasted a daisy cutter past Mark Schwarzer from (conservatively) 25 yards (72). Then Clint Dempsey climbed highest in the area and headed in another equaliser (78). 2-2. Phew. What a strange game.
Much to ponder, not least: is Paintsil ‘done for’? In the week Mark Hughes addressed JP’s contract situation (it expires this season) by not addressing it (‘let’s see how he plays’), and today Paintsil ended up being substituted on the hour. It didn’t seem entirely necessary but Paintsil isn’t playing all that well. He’s never been particularly good going forwards, but if the defending goes wrong he’s in trouble. His common or garden play today was fair enough, but there were many places he could have headed Downing’s cross, and again he was found wanting. We must not forget that for all its narratives, sub-plots and intrigue, football is a simple game about goals for and against, and handing out cheap concessions is not what good teams do. (Our own George Cohen reckons he got his England place because Sir Alf Ramsey lost trust in Jimmy Armfield after a dodgy backpass that led to a goal).
Otherwise we played quite well. Not surprisingly, Villa were alive to what our players could do, so Murphy was forced to rove around in search of space, Dembele never quite broke free of his markers, Dempsey was shut out almost entirely (for the second straight game) and there was a general sense of our players needing at least one furtherpassing option when attacking: as it was Villa shut down our angles extremely well, and for a long time many of our attempts (and there were a few) were fiercely contested or snuffed out before they became dangerous.
Speaking of fierce, our new number 7 had a stormer: Steve Sidwell had much to prove, of course, but there was a real snap in his play, the kind of Bryan Robson performance that makes his lack of football in the last couple of years baffling. He had several shots on goal, most of them decent, and of course it was his drive that Friedel parried for Johnson’s equaliser. He made some serious tackles too. Long may this continue; he looks like a phenomenal signing.
It’s all there or thereabouts. The team’s playing well and usually we’d expect nothing from Villa Park. That we got a point and could have had three says enough, especially given Villa’s improvement in recent weeks.