Numerous times this season we’ve come up with late goals to nick a point or 3 and we’re widely recognised as having great staying power. So when we got an early goal for a change (prior to today Sunderland had only scored once in the first 20 minuets all season – stat courtesy of Jeff Stelling), we suddenly had to work out how to defend it for most of the game, which we did pretty well. And we could/should have won it right at the end again, but I’ll get to that later.
The team was another of Keanes pick and mix efforts with Stokes and Murphy coming in; there was about 20 different setups he could have gone with. He opted for Stokes up front, Murphy on the left, Wallace on the right and trusty Dean Whitehead at right back. It was a setup we looked pretty comfortable with and started brightly, having plenty of possession and getting some good balls in from both flanks. Having forced a couple of corners, Wallace swung the second one in beautifully and it was met by Higginbotham who powered it into the net for the lead.
With only 10 minutes gone we’d need to play very well now to come away with 3 points. We’d need to either get another or defend this goal for the remainder of the game and our defence isn’t really good enough for that. However Villas real threat is on the counter attack with Agbonlahor and Young so keeping it tight was imperative. Predictably Villa came back strong and had a lot of possession and territory but despite all that Ward was never really troubled. Mcshane and Higginbotham looked commanding and Collins was as steady as ever. Young gave Whitehead the run around on the wing but we were getting away with it it seemed.
Despite Villas dominance we did still get the odd chance, Stokes had the ball in the back of the net after a rebounded Jones shot but it was ruled offside and right on half time a run and shot from Jones forced a save from Carson. Just as the corner was about o be taken however the referee, Steve Bennett, blew for half time – a precedent for things to come?
Villa started the second half with urgency once more and for the first 5 minutes it was seat-of-the-pants stuff which we got through ok. Their best chance came when a cross was spilled by Ward but the resulting shot was cleared off the line. Otherwise Ward wasn’t overly worked and we seemed to be under control but with 20 minutes left Mcshane conceded a free kick on the edge of the box. Barry and Maloney were over the ball, the wall was setup to block the right footed effort but I think as Ward didn’t know who would take it he stayed in the middle of the goal. Barry left it to Maloney and despite the angle being harder, he curled it across the wall and into the opposite corner, Ward had no chance and it was a great strike. Villa were worth their goal.
Realising we really needed to get 3 points today and realising we could beat these we set about going for the winner. Villa seemed happy with a point and in the dying minutes we had a front four of Chopra, Jones, Cole and Murphy. Leadbitter had a good headed chance but it went straight at Carson. Then with Villa a bit nervy we piled forward in injury time. With seemingly the 3 minutes already up we forced a last gasp corner. Everybody went up, Leadbitter delivered, Collins rose and headed into the net and we thought we had our obligatory last minute goal again. Surely it was too good to be true? Well yes it was. Steve Bennett ruled it out, I’ve no idea why but Collins seemed to be protesting his innocence. At the time of writing I’ve not seen it on the telly. For what its worth my theory is that when the ball went out for the corner he’d already played the 3 minutes, but not wanting to blow up before it was taken (as he had done in the first half) as that would have incensed the crowd he thought he’d let it be taken and after it was cleared he’d blow up. When the goal went in he probably thought he had to disallow it as it was after time. That may be a load of balls of course and it may have been a foul but that’s my conspiracy theory for tonight.
However a draw it was and as with the Fulham game everyone came away feeling a little down, knowing we should have won. Our home form’s good but we need to keep that up AND start picking up points away from home if we’re to get away from the bottom 3.
Report by marcopaul