Aston Villa came out of the blocks flying, getting off to the start they needed and taking a two goal lead into the locker room. For the first 45 minutes, Villa looked like a different team. The back line was composed, the attack flowed freely from end-to-end, and Ben Foster was being tested. After the whistle to start the second half, it was become to normal, and West Brom wasted little time letting everyone know it was going to be that kind of second half. In the end Aston Villa was able to hang on for a big point, and they've now moved ahead of Reading and Wigan and out of the bottom three. That's a positive thing, but it's nearly impossible not to dwell on the opportunity that Villa gave away.
Villa took the lead after a fairly even start when Christian Benteke got the ball with his back to goal at the edge of the area before opening a window of space, turning and firing a rocket into the far corner past a hopeless Ben Foster. That goal gave the side a clear spark, and the rest of the first half was dominated by the claret and blue. Charles N'Zogbia looked a man reborn in his free role behind the strikers, creating all sorts of havoc in whatever space was available and single-handedly running Villa's attack and living up to the number on his shirt. It was in large part N'Zogbia who helped to create Villa's second; after running onto a perfectly weighted ball down the right flank from Ashley Westwood, N'Zogbia released Gabriel Agbonlahor into space and the Villa striker took an excellent touch to set up his low, near-post shot past Foster.
N'Zogbia's hard work and creativity nearly led to a third after he drew the West Brom defense with him before pulling the ball back to Eric Lichaj, who was unmarked in the center of the box. The wingback's finish was lacking however, and Foster was able to punch away the shot. It was Villa's best unconverted chance of the half but it was far from the only one, and at the half the question was whether those missed opportunities would come back to haunt them. And given the way things turned out, it's quite fair to say that they did.
Th confidence and quality displayed by Villa in the first half was largely absent from the first kick of the ball in the second. The lead was cut in half just four minutes after the break after Romelu Lukaku held up the ball brilliantly in the area and set up a screaming effort from Chris Brunt from just outside the box. The change in the demeanor of the team was immediate, and from there on it was a torturous experience. The feeling that Villa would not be leaving the Hawthorns intensified in the 52nd minute, when Fabian Delph (who had been tremendous in the first half) was withdrawn due to a foot injury in favor of Barry Bannan. Bannan has been heavily criticized by many this season and a great deal of it has been unfair, but no matter your opinion of the player it was clear that his influence was not the one that this particular game was calling out for.
There was another perplexing decision to come from Paul Lambert, when in the 66th minute Charles N'Zogbia-by far Villa's best player to that point-was withdrawn in favor of Brett Holman. Holman isn't the worst player in the world to have around, but in a game that had quickly become an exhibition in how to give away possession, the loss of N'Zogbia was a massive blow. The next half-hour was a near constant siege of Villa's penalty area by the home side, and though Villa did make occasional forays into the opposition's half their few chances were largely wasted. That Villa still had the lead past the 80-minute mark was something of a minor miracle, but it wouldn't last long. Horrendous set-piece marking (shockingly) was their undoing, when an unmarked Peter Odemwingie stuck back a rebound to level the terms.
From there, the question was whether or not Aston Villa would complete the collapse and leave the Hawthorns with nothing to show for a brilliant first-half display. That didn't happen and it's something to be be grateful for, but Villa's Jekkyl and Hyde act is a frustrating trend that's been going on for far too long. I'm still a believer in the abilities and long-term plans of Paul Lambert, but this can't continue to happen. Aston Villa was tremendous in the first half, and to put in such an awful performance in response if inexcusable. Taken together with a noticeably deeper shape after West Brom's first goal and the questionable substitutions, this is the first time this season that it's fair to lay a large share of the blame for a negative outcome on the manager's in-game decisions.
There are some positives to take from this game. Being out of the relegation zone is far better than being in it, and the performance quality on display in the first half was legitimately impressive. Charles N'Zogbia was inspired, and though it's an overused cliche it really would be like a new signing were he able to keep it up the rest of the way. There's something to build on here. But the fact that it's late January and Aston Villa still have just one complete performance this season (the 3-1 victory at Anfield) makes it difficult to look on the bright side. This is easily the most important ten days of the season to this point, with a chance at League Cup redemption on Tuesday, a tough FA Cup test against Millwall on Friday, and yet another six-pointer against Newcastle on the 29th. This was a golden chance to set a positive tone and gain some steam, but it was thrown away. Could it be worse? Certainly. But that doesn't mean it's not bad.