In a game which many had predicted would involve a comprehensive win for the visitors, the Villa boys produced a battling display at Villa Park against Manchester United and the teams shared the spoils.
A superb individual goal from Villa’s talisman Christian Benteke shocked the Red Devils in the first half but his strike was ultimately cancelled out by Falcao’s second half header. Gabby Agbonlahor was then controversially sent off as he went in for a 50/50 challenge with Ashley Young. Lee Mason, the referee for the game, decided that Agbonlahor had gone for the ball dangerously but the replays showed that the sending off was a very bad decision, with most football pundits also agreeing that it was the wrong call.
Manchester United’s record at Villa Park is certainly hard to believe: the club hasn’t lost there in eighteen years. Still, before the game I had belief that we had the ability to cause our visitors problems. Although they had over £100 million worth of attacking talent, the Villans restricted the Red Devils to some half chances.
Having players like Ashley Westwood, Tom Cleverley and Alan Hutton out through a combination of injuries and suspensions, it was going to be very tough to go toe-to-toe with the visitors, despite their defence having been suspect since the beginning of this season. Paul Lambert’s men started with a 5-2-3 formation, with an emphasis on Agbonlahor and Weimann dropping back when defending and supporting Benteke when attacking. It was a game plan which was working well enough, as the visitors didn’t seem to push too many players forward at any one time because they were wary of the counter-attacking threat the Villans have in their artillery.
The pleasing thing for me is that the squad is showing character and strength in depth. Before the game, Paul Lambert had described Villa’s squad as being ‘down to its bare bones’. However, the players who stepped in made a good impression on the fans and showed everyone that they were not going to just roll over and accept defeat.
When down to ten men, the players rolled up their sleeves and kept going. Jores Okore and Ciaran Clark again showed that their partnership is going strong, even as Ron Vlaar was called back into the starting line-up, which meant that we played three central defenders instead of two. Jores Okore in particular put in another eye-catching, man of the match performance, which was extremely pleasing. Some fans used to wonder why people were making such a big fuss about him not being in the squad despite being able to play for his international U21 side. Now those people are seeing why questions were asked at that time. Just like Christian Benteke, Jores Okore is a class act and he is partly the reason why I think I can now accept Ron Vlaar leaving, if he does indeed decide to go soon.
One other thing that many people probably learned was how important Alan Hutton has become to our side. Although he didn’t have his worst game in a Villa shirt, putting in a decent shift, Matt Lowton was up against a player who is back in favour at Old Trafford (and one we all know well) in Ashley Young. The former Villa and Watford star looked dangerous throughout the game and gave Lowton a terrible time down the wings. If Hutton had been playing, I’m sure he would have done a better job of minimising Young’s attacking threat – and maybe we could have nicked all three points.
The next game, against Swansea, will be an even harder test than the United game, in my opinion. I like Swansea as a club: the team plays great football at times and the staff there seem to be doing things the right way. I hope the Villans one day play a similar style to the Swans, as their brand of football is exciting and very easy on the eye. Of course, like all teams, they do go through some sticky patches but they don’t tend to last long and the team ends up finishing strongly in the Premier League.
We’re slowly building something here and it feels like Lambert might finally be getting it right. Hopefully, with a little bit of money to spend in January, we could be a few players away from becoming a top ten team again.
Finally, I just want to wish everyone a merry Christmas and a happy, healthy 2015.