I have never been happier to admit that I was wrong. In the preview of this match, I was pretty clear in stating that I did not expect a very ambitious effort from Villa. Though it looked until the very last that a 0-0 draw would be the outcome, that prediction couldn't have been further from the truth; Villa's intentions were clear from the start and the push for three points kept going until Andreas Weimann scored the silliest, most ridiculous, most wonderful goal of the season just seconds before the final whistle. This was by far the most complete game Villa have put together all season, and though the result may be a bit harsh on a Fulham side that didn't play poorly in the least, it would be difficult to argue that Villa didn't deserve all three points.
The home side were dominant for the majority of the first half, controlling possession and putting a great deal of pressure on Mark Schwarzer but coming away with nothing to show for it. That made Fulham's push back early in the second half pretty nerve-wracking; it was a similar feel to last week's Blackburn game, but without the one goal advantage to fall back on. But unlike that game, Villa made some adjustments and kept battling. Eventually they had Fulham on the back foot again and once the Cottagers decided to try and preserve the draw Villa saw nearly all of the play for the rest of the game. It didn't look like it would matter, and it certainly didn't feel like it would matter. I was already outlining this post in my head, and the general theme was to ignore the 0-0 result and focus on the balance of play, which was overwhelmingly positive.And then it happened. Barry Bannan, who as always put a spark under Villa after coming on as a substitute, slid the ball to Gary Gardner at the edge of the box. Gardner took a touch into space and fired directly at Schwarzer, but with enough power and swerve that the Fulham keeper was unable to control. Weimann had positioned himself perfectly for the rebound and struck the ball directly at Schwarzer, but the ball slipped behind and the young Austrian striker used every single part of his body save his hands to encourage the ball over the line. It was ridiculous and awkward and more than a bit lucky, but it might have been my favorite moment of the season and a whole lot of quality play in the buildup made it possible. And to see it come from some great work from three young Academy players was just tremendously encouraging. Had Emile Heskey scored that goal off a deflection from a shot by Petrov I would have still been thrilled, but seeing the kids make it happen was really a special thing.
The positives from this performance were all over the place. Alan Hutton was absolutely tremendous, posing a constant threat in attack and making some crucial stops in defense. The back line as a whole was excellent, and the way Collins and Cuellar work as a pairing makes the loss of Richard Dunne hurt a little bit less. Stephen Ireland was absolutely everywhere, and though he had a perfectly fine day as an attacking player the moments that stood out were in defense. He made some wonderful tackles that I would never have expected from him, several of them breaking up dangerous looking Fulham attacks. And of course there was Stiliyan Petrov, who has been fantastic all season and may well have had his best game today. I genuinely thought he was done being a decent Premier League player after last season, but he's shown that nothing could be further from the truth. The only real complaint I have is, not surprisingly, the decision to remove Charles N'Zogbia. This wasn't his best game but he was far from poor, and I worry that his frustration at being removed from nearly every game (usually before anyone else) is destroying his confidence. Of course, the counterpoint to that would be that he was withdrawn for Weimann, so it's really not something I'm going to spend too much time worrying about.
This was just a fantastic win, and one Villa could build off of. Any talk of a relegation battle at this point is quite frankly idiotic, and Bolton (Villa's next opponent) is an eminently beatable side. The games get much more difficult after that for the next month, so it would be excellent to carry some confidence forward before going through the gauntlet. But we'll worry about that later; today, I'm just planning on enjoying the fact that watching a Villa game entertained me a great deal and the result made me incredibly happy. It's been a long damned time.