With a stopgap defence to add to the ever-growing list of woes, Lambert’s Lions went into battle with the soaring Saints in front of the smallest crowd the mighty Villa Park has held for a Premier League game since December 1999.
Predictably, it was the visitors rather than the Villans who enjoyed most of the possession in the game’s early stages, although, fortunately, they were unable to do anything with it in the final third.
The hosts’ make-shift defence looked surprisingly solid and, with Clark particularly vocal and enjoying one of his best-ever games in a Villa shirt, constrained the free-scoring Saints, who had few chances throughout the game.
When the twenty-first minute was marked with a minute’s applause in memory of the twenty-one victims of the Birmingham bombings, the Saints had not had a clear-cut chance: the closest they had come to scoring – and it really wasn’t close – was when both Wanyama and Mane sent the ball soaring over the bar.
Frustated Villa fans who had braved the cold were rewarded after twenty-nine minutes and the flat atmosphere lifted somewhat when Forster’s indecision and to-ing and fro-ing allowed Agbonlahor to beat the Southampton goalkeeper and slot the ball into an empty net from a tight angle.
While the Villans enjoyed an all-too-rare lead, the Saints, having conceded what was only their sixth goal in the Premier League this season, began to march, putting their hosts under pressure as half-time approached. The defenders were dogged in their approach, frustrating the Saints, but the visitors were almost rewarded just before the break when Guzan did well to dive acrobatically to his left and push Sadio Mane’s curling shot wide of the post.
As the second half got under way, N’Zogbia, whose pace had caused the opposition some problems, albeit not enough of them, could have added to his side’s advantage but was unlucky to see his close-range shot blocked.
With the Saints reasserting themselves, their efforts to equalise were thwarted by a determined Villa defence that they were unable to unlock. The visitors’ frustrations became increasingly obvious and Wanyama lost his cool, taking Cleverley’s legs from under him.
Having picked up an injury, N’Zogbia was replaced by Richardson. With the Villans continuing to struggle to create chances, Lambert made another of his odd substitutions, bringing Bent on in place of Sanchez while the Holte Enders chanted Grealish’s name.
Pelle headed over when he should have scored but he was offside in any case.
All in attendance then witnessed the miss of the match in the seventy-eighth minute: Weimann forged a path clear down the middle of the pitch and fed Agbonlahor on the right but, as the ball came back to him, he then somehow blazed it over the bar, squandering a great chance to secure all three much-needed points for his team.
Seen holding his head in his hands, Weimann seemed to feel bad about his error but he will undoubtedly have felt worse when the inevitable equaliser came three minutes later. It was former Villan Bertrand who left the hosts in a spin with a run down the left before sending a low cross in to England’s new full-back Clyne, who coolly slotted the ball home.
For once, Lambert’s limited game plan had worked and, given the quality of the opposition, it was really was hard to fault the efforts of the Lions.