Well, what in the world is there to say about this one? I'm generally much more upbeat about games where Villa have the run of play and end up with less than perhaps they deserved, but this is beginning to get old. It's one thing to play well and find yourselves unable to find a goal every now and again but it is quite another to go week after week carrying along with you a complete and total inability to put the ball into the opposition's net. Villa have scored more than one goal twice in nine Premier League contests so far this season. They've scored more than two once, that coming in the first game of the season. Were they being played off the pitch a majority of the time it wouldn't be so frustrating, but that's not the case at all. They look largely comfortable in possession, they look absolutely deadly on the counter and set pieces tend to be nervous affairs for the other side. They've done so much right on so many occasions this season, but the one bit they haven't been able to get a handle on is the most important. As good as Emile Heskey has been much of this year, he's never going to be a prolific goalscorer. John Carew looks to have completely lost the plot. Nathan Delfouneso is not yet a Premier League quality finisher. Ashley Young's time in center hasn't resulted in goals. I'm beginning to think that Gabriel Agbonlahor is in fact deceased. The wing play has been quite solid, but there's absolutely no attacking presence in the center and you can't expect to score with that being the case.
Today was a textbook example of that. Stewart Downing rattled the post right at the beginning and things looked promising early. Minues later Nigel Reo-Coker once again found himself in a dangerous position bearing down on the keeper in space, only to go down before he had the opportunity to put the ball towards goal. Shouts for a penalty ensued and while one being awarded would not have been a grave miscarriage of justice by any stretch, neither was the referee's decision to let play continue. I couldn't help but find myself wondering if Nigel's miss against Chelsea was on his mind as the contact was made, because he's certainly not a man that can be brought down easily.
Villa continued to control the pace of the game (albeit without offering much in the way of danger to Sunderland) until the 25th minute when Richard Dunne directed Steed Malbranque's cross past Brad Friedel and into the back of the net. While the delivery was well-struck, by the time it reached Dunne the danger was well past. It was a baffling decision and a shame in more ways than one, as aside from the one incident I thought that he looked as good as we've seen him all year. The own-goal was the eighth of Dunne's career which gives him the rather dubious distinction as having putting more balls into his own net than any other player in Premier League history. That's a rather ugly mark on the record of a man who has been near the top of the league in quality for the majority of his career.
The own-goal clearly rattled Villa, and Sunderland spent the next five minutes making Brad Friedel's life miserable as the Stadium of Light came to full voice for the first time all day. Things settled down a bit after that, and the two sides traded harmless long balls for the majority of the next twenty minutes. Stiliyan Petrov was forced to leave due to a knee injury at the 40 minute mark and is expected to undergo tests tomorrow morning. Steve Sidwell came on in his place and proceeded to be Steve Sidwell, offering nothing in either phase of the game and generally playing like a dirty little prat. As the teams headed to the locker room Steve Bruce had to be feeling quite pleased with both his squad's good fortune and the way they responded to it while Gerard Houliier had to be feeling like someone had delivered a brisk punch to his groin and thrown his dog off of a bridge.
It was more of the same at the start of the second half. Sunderland were content to play their preferred bunker-and-counter style with Villa unable to get any real push in the attacking game save for an uncharacteristically poor effort from Ashley Young after Stewart Downing found him in space in the box with five minutes gone in the second half. Things changed drastically when the once again invisible Stephen Ireland was removed in favor of Marc Albrighton 55 minutes in with Ashley Young moving to the withdrawn forward role he's seen the majority of his time at this season. With a player actually capable of doing something aside from ruining everything in a creative role in the midfield Villa found space open up out wide, and Marc Albrighton and Stewart Downing wasted little time making use of it. Sunnderland were back on their heels, but time and again Villa were unable to capitalize on their quality in the build-up. Downing's well-directed low cross fell to the feet of Emile Heskey in front of a wide open net but it evaded his control. On several other occasions the big forward found space for himself in dangerous areas but missed headers left, right and high. Late on in the going James Collins moved into a central forward position in the attack as Houllier directed Villa to come ahead with everything they had. It wasn't a poor decision as sheer numbers looked the only way Villa were going to find the equalizer, but Sunderland did exactly what was needed by matching numbers at the back and punishing Villa on the counter with Brad Friedel seeing more to concern him near the death. In the end, the whistle blew and Villa had yet another game where they looked excellent in many aspects but were ultimately unable to secure the result.
There were certainly some bright spots. Nigel Reo-Coker was once again Villa's best player, with a tremendous game disrupting the flow of Sunderland's attack in the midfield and making a nuisance of himself with Villa in possession. Gerard Houllier continues to show that he has an understanding of what adjustments are needed and making them before it's too late, as the team looked completely different with Marc Albrighton on the wing and Ireland on the bench. Marc Albrighton was electric. The defense appear to have shaken off their early season struggles with yet another solid effort on the day, Richard Dunnne's costly gaffe notwithstanding.
But I hope you will forgive me when I say that I am not much in the mood to turn coal into diamonds at the moment. All due respect to Sunderland; they've have performed well all season long and have one of the most robust defenses in the league. There's absolutely no shame in leaving the Stadium of Light without a point. But this was a match that Villa should have won by several goals. And I'm getting pretty damned tired of having to say that. This is the club that we're stuck with for at least the next several months, and if they don't want to find themselves hopelessly out of the European places by the time new players can be brought in then someone is going to need to remember how to put the ball in the Godforsaken net. I'm not asking for Chelsea. Hell, I'm not even asking for Blackpool. I'm asking for attacking players employed by a Premier League club with Champions League aspirations to finish chances that should be put away by 40 year olds playing in a recreational league in Iowa. There's too damned much talent, too many quality chances being created, too much effort being wasted for this to continue. In so much of the game, Villa look like they can play with anyone in the league. But unless they figure out a way to start putting up goals, it's all going to be for nothing.