A game that threatened to spring into life on a couple of occasions but, in the end, failed to deliver.
We may be five weeks into our competative campaign but there was still a buzz surrounding the opening league fixture. The sun was out and a clear run to the ground provided plenty of time for a pre-game beer by the riverside. Most people I spoke too were optimistic for a winning start, expecting our Europa League games to give us the edge. It wasn’t to be.
Both teams tentatively proped each other in the early exchanges. Not taking any serious risks but happy to try a pot shot or two when the chance was presented. Duff fouled someone on the edge of our box, seemed to have got away with it but then looked at the ref to check and was promptly pulled up for it. Like a naughty schoolboy caught by his own reaction. Villa sent that effort comfortably wide. Andy Johnson, who seems to have got his falling down trick sorted again (witness the penalty he won against Split), got us a free kick in a similar position at the other end. Murphy played a nice ball into the box which Clint nudged on, but John Arne Riise blazed over the bar. Riise will score goals for us and I suspect most of them will be belters. Shortly after that Duff collected a far post cross, had a swipe from distance but saw it curl lazily wide of the Villa post.
Something yet nothing. Murphy was having one of those days when only 50% of his passes came off. He wasn’t alone in this, but frustration got the better of him mid-way through the half and a lunge at Heskey (I think) got him the first yellow card of the day. Villa started to benefit from our carelessness, catching us on the counter whenever we lost the ball. Bent was caught offside twice in quick succession and Petrov tried one from distance.
Though we were ostensibly lined up 4-4-2, John Arne’s forward thinking often left us with three at the back. This may be why Jol is persisting with Hughes in the right back slot. Riise looked solid defending and exciting going forward. I can understand why Jol would want to make this work. However, I hate seeing the Hangeland/Hughes partnership broken up and, perhaps partly due to my own prejudice, felt Senderos was not nearly as assured as Hughes would have been in the same postition.
We started the second half at full tilt and dominated the game for a good 15 minutes. Duff & AJ combined well down the right before Given saved from Zamora at point blank range. Duff then switched to the left and exchanged neat passes with Riise only to see the cross cleared and Etuhu’s follow up shot blocked. AJ in particular looked lively all day. Working his socks off with or without the ball, he went on a number of jinking runs but just couldn’t find the finishing touch or the perfect lay off. The best chance of the game fell to Bobby in the 63rd minute. Murphy played a sumptious hollywood pass over the Villa defence to find the big man in space on the edge of their box. Zamora controlled well, cut back inside the defender but then misfired his shot straight at Shay Given. Moments later Murphy again found the killer pass, but AJ also failed to really connect with his effort.
Mark Albrighton replace N’Zogbia in the Villa midfield and the advantage seemed to swing back towards the visitors. Heskey had caused all sorts of problems, most of them physical, in a three man front line but now dropped back to a forward thinking midfield role. Demebele replaced Zamora with around 20 minutes to play but again struggled to get involved in the game. I’m not sure if he’s carrying an injury or just lacking match fitness but I think it will be a few more games before we see the best of Moussa. Villa forced three corners in quick succession but we held on and the game was allowed to fizzle out.
A fair result for two teams that looked a little rough around the edges. A better result for Villa undoubtedly but not such a bad result for us either.