Posted by Aaron
Recaps are something I've wanted to do for a bit and for reasons that will soon become clear we'll be doing them much more frequently going forward. Here is the first one!
Well that was a bit more nerve-wracking than expected. I don't think it is unfair to say that Villa leaving without anything less than all three would have been a massive disappointment; a team of Villa's caliber must be expected to defeat a team of Pompey's no matter the venue. That Portsmouth managed to defeat Spurs (that Portsmouth managed to defeat anyone) to book a ticket to Wembley for the FA Cup final is nothing short of an act of God. I have a lot of affection for Pompey and their fans are some of the best in England (if not the world) but at the risk of stating the obvious they are not at all a good side.
It is understandable then that I found myself rather displeased when Michael Brown put Pompey ahead in the 10th minute. Stephen Warnock did not have an especially good day and at no point did he look more absurd than when he had his lunch eaten for him in by Anthony Vanden Borre, who then sent a smart cross along the ground. Kevin-Prince Boateng gave Friedel a bit too much to think about and Smith took advantage of the hesitation and hammered the ball into the back corner. I've become so accustomed to the dominance of Villa's back line that seeing Warnock made to look so foolish gave me a bit of a start, and credit to Portsmouth for forcing the error and capitalizing.
Villa were dominant to that point and it didn't take long at all for them to re-establish themselves as the superior side. I think that's an encouraging sign, as one of the major criticisms I have of this team is their tendency to become rattled and ineffective when faced with a bit of adversity. I think it's largely a function the age of the squad and it's nice to see some signs of maturity.
There's a bit of difference between dominance of the proceedings and putting the ball in the net however, and seconds after Carew somehow managed to choose the arms David James as the place to put the ball of a beautiful feed from Gabby, I found myself grateful that the downstairs neighbor moved out a few months back because no one wants to be woken at 8:30 on a Sunday morning by a stream of loud profanity coming from the floor above. That's a chance I really think you must convert, as Carew had the whole net to choose from; it wasn't a given, as Big John was only a half-step ahead of his marker and right in on the goal, but it's one he is more than capable of converting and it's fair to be disappointed when he does not.
My disappointment was thankfully quite short-lived (and to be honest I can't stay mad at John for long in any event.) Carew has been rightly criticized for appearing to be less than observant of his surroundings at times, but he did a fantastic job of recognizing the offside trap, gathering Milner's very nice ball into the area and displaying a bit of his trademark awkward grace to make a bit of room for himself and hammering it home to pull Villa level. A very nice bit of play all around and very nice to even it up so quickly after Portsmouth went ahead.
Villa continued to control possession and threaten Portsmouth's goal, and I think it's worth noting that Portsmouth were sitting very deep and being very selective in their decisions to launch the counter. They weren't yet quite parking the bus, but they were quite clearly in a defensive mindset all afternoon and Villa were able to give themselves quite a few nice looks in spite of this. Dan at the peerless Aston Villa Central has been talking about this for quite some time now, both on the blog and on Twitter, but it's worth re-iterating; teams are playing their defenses deep against Villa now, just as they would against the other top attacking sides in the Premiership. Villa have struggled to adapt to this change in tactics at times this year, but they seem to be making some adjustments to their attack. We're still having some trouble finishing, especially against the top half of the table, but that's going to come. Definitely something to keep an eye on the rest of the year.
Villa had several more very dangerous possessions late in the first half. Ashley Young very nearly forced an own-goal in the 20th minute from a lovely cross, but the ball ultimately found the woodwork. Late in the first half, Milner and Carew attempted to find an opening in the box but it appeared Portsmouth had largely diffused the situation. Carew got a touch on the ball and appeared content to push the ball back and allow Villa to reset the attack when Papa Bouba Diop made one of the most pointless and frankly idiotic challenges I've seen in a great while leading to a Villa penalty, a creature heretofore only spoken about in hushed tones by the elders but thought by most to be a myth. Carew stepped in and rifled the shot towards goal but David James managed to get his body in front of it and direct the ball out of danger. It's always frustrating to fail to convert a penalty but there's not much more Big John can do; there was plenty behind the shot and it was towards an acceptable part of the goal, James just guessed correctly and made a great stop. Not much you can do but tip your proverbial cap and try to get another. (As an aside, the look on Carew's face when he realized the ball was not in the back of the net was priceless and I would kill for a screen cap.)
As we went into the half I felt as though Villa could have easily been ahead 3-1 and deserved it. The lapse at the back that led to Pompey's goal was painful and the finish legitimate, but Portsmouth were clearly struggling to stay in it and I was certainly pleased. My expectation was that if Villa could come out and proceed in the same manner we would go ahead soon enough and cruise the rest of the way. It might go without saying, but I am sometimes an idiot about these things and I would hope that I will eventually figure out that goals are never a given. things did indeed proceed as they had in the first half, but the second goal remained frustratingly out of reach. Around the 70th minute I began to get fidgety and as the clock ticked away my edginess progressed to annoyance and ultimately to yelling at the screen. In hindsight I realize that there was a lot of bad luck in Villa's inability to go ahead earlier, but at the time it was incredibly frustrating.
Carew being pulled for Heskey did little to improve my mood, but I will admit that he looked a different player today. Perhaps it was the level of opposition, but you really got a sense of what it is Heskey does so well and Villa really ramped up the attack once he got into the game. I am as hard as anyone on Emile Heskey, but I am also one to give credit where it is due so good on ya', Mr. Heskey. If you can play like that going forward I am more than happy to have you on this team. MON's second substitution came in the 80th minute when a clearly gassed Gabriel Agbonlahor was pulled in favor of Nathan Delfouneso. Two minutes later James Milner sent in a gorgeous cross that Emile Heskey headed on to Delfouneso brilliantly and the youngster did incredibly well to finish. He went up with his body in a somewhat awkward position and made a graceful adjustment in mid-air to finish beautifully. I'm planning on a longer post about Delfouneso and what he could mean to this team both in the near and long-term, but for now I will say that he looks as though he could be a very special player in the making. speaking of very special players, Ashley Young very nearly converted an acrobatic goal in the 85th minute but missed just wide, missing out on an opportunity to put the match out of reach. It seemed insignificant at the time, more upsetting by nature of our being deprived of seeing something exciting than having any real consequence, but five minutes later I found myself hoping against hope that it had found its way into the net.
I was at Qwest Field yesterday to watch Sounders and immediately after going ahead 1-0 in the 92nd minute it took a tremendous diving stop by Kasey Keller on a breakaway not ten seconds later to preserve the Sounders lead. In the wake of the euphoria caused by going ahead late in the going, the defense completely fell asleep and absolutely collapsed, and if not for having the best keeper in MLS in goal that euphoria would have very quickly been completely erased. I mention this because something very similar happened in the wake of Delfouneso's goal today. It wasn't quite as bad, but it was readily apparent that Villa's back line were very complacent in the final minutes, and it took a heady stop by a veteran goalkeeper to preserve the newly gained lead late in the match. Conceding a goal there would have been the very definition of gutted. I think that the impact of goalkeepers at the highest levels is most likely overstated to some extent, but I'm very thankful to have Brad Friedel on this team.
Allowing Pompey that late challenge seemed to wake Villa up a bit and from that point on it was academic. If you saw only the scoreline you might be a bit disappointed; I personally was hoping for a few more goals and a better defensive performance coming into the day as well. But watching the match, it was apparent that Villa were the far superior side, and escaping with only one point would have been a tremendous amount of poor luck rather than an indictment of their performance. Portsmouth are a very poor Premier League side at the moment, but they've shown they're capable of beating very good teams in the recent past. You always want to win by a wider margin, certainly, but when you dominate as thoroughly as Villa did today you've got to be pleased with that as well.
Villa are now sitting in sixth two ahead of Liverpool and four clear of Everton with a game in hand. Fifth is a long shot and fourth is all but out of the question (thanks a bundle, Chelsea!) but the team is well positioned to go to Europa (which, as I've said, is most likely a more suitable competition at this point in any case) and looking a decent bet to exceed last year's point total. It is worth pointing out that while last year Villa placed sixth with 62 points, losing eleven and drawing ten times. This year they have lost only six and drawn thirteen times. While it is to be sure that a few of those draws could have very easily been losses, I think it's fair to say that, if not for a bit of poor luck an even greater number could have been wins. This while going to one cup final and one cup semi-final.
It is baffling to me that there are Villa fans (and a not insignificant number of them) that see this season as at best a stagnation and at worst a step backwards or a disappointment. Each game is an incredibly small sample (and even a full season could be classified as such) with chance playing a huge role in the outcome. Generally the best teams will rise to the top and the poorest will sink to the bottom, but the order in which they finish is affected in a very significant manner by things out of anyone's control. It is tempting to think of each result as evidence of the superiority of the victorious side, but one must realize rationally that this is not the case. There are certainly criticisms to be made of Aston Villa, and although I love Martin O'Neill and think he is the right manager for this team now and in the future, he is not exempt from criticism in his own right. But if you are being rational and considering all the facts and the body of work, not only the results, I cannot see how you would come to the conclusion that this is not a team headed in a very positive direction. I digress, but I think that this is an appropriate time to make this point because there will almost certainly be those that point to the final score as evidence of Villa's mediocrity. Those people are missing the forest for the trees, and it is a shame because they're missing out on a lot of excitement.
In the end, a great result. Hull City on Wednesday, which is an equally winnable match. Villa fans can feel good about their team today, and that's always a lovely way to head into the week.