It's 70 degrees outside, there's not a cloud in the sky and I want to start forgetting about this game as soon as possible so this will be brief. This was the kind of performance Villa needed from this game, but right now it's just evident that the quality of the final product is pretty much the sole reason Villa are just five points clear of the drop. The defending was excellent today and Villa were ambitious and did a lot of very good things in the build-up. If Darren Bent is healthy, I think there's a good chance they score two or three. But he isn't, and so it ended up one of the least stereotypical 0-0 draws you're ever going to see.
Gabby Agbonlahor was ineffective for much his shift, and though that's been a theme of late I think it's fair to say that the injury he picked up early on had a lot to do with that. That left it to Andreas Weimann, Charles N'Zogbia and Emile Heskey to provide the goals, and clearly that didn't happen; Weimann is going to be a very good player and he put in a strong performance, but a few early misses seemed to have sapped his confidence to the point that he had no idea what to do with the ball in dangerous areas. N'Zogbia came closest for Villa and looked dangerous on his return from injury, but he also did a lot of mind-numbingly stupid things that resulted in giving the ball away. Emile Heskey was tremendous and made Villa a more dangerous team after coming on, but when it comes to the actual goal scoring bit, well, he's not so good at that.
There were controversies, to be sure; Nicklas Bendtner had what would have been the winner called back for offside, and I want to be clear that he was indeed offside. Perhaps it wasn't much of his body and perhaps those calls aren't typically made, but by the letter of the law he was off. I'd probably be annoyed were I a Sunderland fan, but I don't think anyone has much right to feel particularly aggrieved. The other was the decision of the referee not to book Simon Mignolet for handling the ball outside of the area. In my mind that's a pretty clear sending off, because if he doesn't get to the ball Weimann is in on goal and in that situation Mignolet is the last man. My assumption would be that the referee did not believe there was intent to go outside of the area and so thought a sending-off would be too harsh, and if there's a card given in that situation it almost has to be a red one. My response would be that the intent doesn't really matter, but another thing that doesn't really matter is my opinion on the subject.
Sunderland going down to ten men would have most certainly changed the game, but much like the goal that was called back for offside it's one thing to think the call was wrong and another to feel as though your team was properly screwed by it. It sucks, and I'd certainly have loved to have seen the referee make what I feel was the correct decision, but these weren't obvious blown calls in the moment. Both sides had their opportunities to make the discussion irrelevant by scoring and winning the game, and they didn't capitalize. If there's a reason to be upset, that's a bit more defensible than any refereeing decisions.
For Villa, this is a tough loss. They played the kind of game so many fans have been craving for so long, being aggressive and pushing hard for goals. The defense was excellent, and Sunderland made them work for it. This is a team that, with a few key additions, could very well do the same kind of thing we saw Newcastle pull off this year. And though they're going through a pretty biblical goal-scoring drought, they came razor-close on a few occasions and if not for some tremendous last-ditch efforts from the Villa defense (along with Stephen Ireland, which is nine different varieties of encouraging) they'd have won the game. I have a theory that Villa's defense is more well suited to dealing with those kind of situations, because tactical acumen is not the strength of any of the players along the back line. It's a somewhat nerve-wracking way to go about things, but I'd rather spend half of the game with my heart in my throat to see the clean sheet preserved than watch skill players effortlessly unlock a bunkered defense time and again.
If it weren't for all but one result going against Villa today, I'd be far more encouraged than I currently am. The young players stepped it up a notch today, Nathan Baker in particular putting in an immense performance. Andrea Weimann is going to get to a point where he can finish the chances he missed today, but every other phase of his game is there or at least close to it. Alex McLeish actually encouraged the team to attack, and to do so with a great deal of urgency. But despite all of these encouraging signs, Villa is still just five points clear of the drop. If they can repeat this performance against Bolton they'll likely win, and a lot of the pressure eases. But how many times has that been said this season? I still don't think this team is going down. But they've got to start finishing games.