Lampard Revisited

In amongst the latest bout of Roy-bashing, twitter to and fro-ing, and 'Arrying (a term I've invented for somebody claiming Redknapp should have got the job - normally citing his popularity or footballing style), last week's big name who won't be in Poland and the Ukraine has been lost and forgotten. Some would say this represents a fitting end to Frank Lampard's international career - he remains all at sea, lost in the mid-pages of mediocrity. To my mind, though, this is grossly unfair on one of England's key recent players.

In an era where twenty-odd year olds retire from international football and a general stench of detachment from reality hangs around the squad, Lampard has never been bigger than the team (or in this case country). When he was left on the bench, or not given license to play his favoured, if slightly old-fashioned, no. 8 role, he didn't scowlingly retire (looking at you Paul Scholes), and when England fans booed him he responded with more grace and dignity than a certain Wayne Rooney - by getting on with playing football. Those same fans, by the way, had voted him England's best player 2 years in a row not too long before

But despite being a model professional, completely avoiding controversy and being good with the media (captain material in fact), Lampard has been tarnished since 2006 as part of the failed 'golden generation'. Strangely he seems to have suffered even more than most because of the club he plays for, or maybe just because close proximity to John Terry and to a lesser extent Ashley Cole is enough to poison the minds of the average English fan. Ironically despite being England's most prolific penalty scorer ever, he has never really recovered from that miss against Portugal, and while his performances have been mostly average and his scoring record is slightly better than 1 in 4, the 'Fat Frank' moniker and beer-belched, pub noise abuse have maintained a much more prominent level.

Lampard, like Ferdinand in 2010, has seemingly been robbed of his last opportunity to make a real impact at a tournament. I'm discounting 2004, where he was England's top scorer and in the team of the tournament, because he himself would not look upon that as a great success - he recognises the far greater value of a team's achievements. Lampard's Champions League Final performance was notable for its control and precision, the economy of movement and calm creation of space. When Steven Gerrard is spraying 40 yard passes to nobody in particular, having abandoned any kind of short-passing game, and Scott Parker is labouring and clearly unfit, the true cost of Lampard's absence will be felt.

It is now fashionable to retrospectively chastise England as a whole for failing to appreciate Scholes when he was at his peak - like most retrospection this ignores the reality that not only was Scholes past his peak, but he should have been more prepared to play out of position, and then he probably would have got another chance in the centre. A straw poll of England fans/serially grumbling viewers would show that most do not think Lampard should be in the team, and probably not anywhere near it. I wonder if he is about to undergo a Scholes-esque renaissance - an ageing dynamo forced to retreat into Pirlo-territory to conduct and prompt.

If so and the expected post-Euros cull is enacted, any future call would surely be answered positively - for like the truly committed international players of any era (Beckham, Neville) no collection of caps is enough.

Andy Carroll, Joey Barton, Torres and King Kenny

What do these three have in common? They have become the backbone of my illusionary 'Post-Modern Football Team' - the team which exists in an absurd detached reality, yet manages to inhabit that space so comfortably. Joey Barton and Kenny Dalglish have at least in part actively sculptured this strange new world - collaborating with a fanatical, feverish Fleet Street, whilst Torres and Carroll, according to the old cliche, have done their talking on the pitch.

It was Carroll, in fact, who first inspired the embryonic idea of such a team. Crucially, and typically, it wasn't actually his own behaviour that did so - a heavy-drinking, allegedly girlfriend-beating 'target man', even wearing a shirt number with a needless mythology, Carroll was almost atavistic until January 2011. Rather it was the transfer which brought him from Tyneside to Merseyside which confirmed the big Geordie's new status. I have yet to hear, or see, from anybody in any medium, an argument which rationalises or explains the £35 million Liverpool inexplicably splurged on Chris Sutton's less talented footballing descendant. This isn't because I live a hermit's existence (though this is partially true), but rather that such a rationalisation or explanation simply doesn't exist.

Nonetheless we now live in a world where Andy Carroll is a 35 million pound striker, where this is in some way a 'statement of intent/ambition' (to which it logically follows that Kenny Dalglish is the next totalitarian maniac we should all be weary of). In this world, this new reality, the sight of the lumbering bedraggled youngster (which he still is) missing routine chances doesn't twist our blood, induce insane rage, or make us question our very existence but is merely accepted. And in this reality we do not question, we merely accept that this is the way it will be now, interminably.

Carroll's signing would be unprecedented if it weren't for the precedent, set just one week before, by his new strike partner: Fernando Torres. Having seen Torres perform sporadically well, it is probably too early to write him off completely. Nonetheless it seems like he has contracted a case of the footballing yips. The moment which summed this up perfectly was the now infamous Old Trafford miss. Unfortunately this stole the thunder from what had been his best performance in a Chelsea shirt, in which he even scored a well-taken goal. Now, though, Torres has been reduced to stumbling unsuccessfully from miss to miss, like an overly-inebriated young student in a fresher's week club.

With Carroll and Torres comes the realisation that worth does not mean anything anymore in football. In other words, the word itself is bereft of meaning or value. Our emblems of this strange, self-contained universe of ever expanding egos, fees and circling agents play out a sad tragedy each week, in which even the smallest of joys are accompanied by the realisation that it is almost certainly about to get a lot worse and a lot more painful to watch. It is, of course, neither Carroll nor Torres' fault that somebody somewhere decided that 35 and 50 million were going to be paid for them, but equally it is surely beyond doubt that these price tags have since defined them (which makes Andy Cole's struggles to come to terms with a £7 million seem almost reassuringly old-fashioned).

Every Barton tweet, every needlessly spiky needling piece of wittery, seems now to be part of a tired old routine - a supine and desperate plea for relevance. The Man City Barton was a talented footballer haunted by off-field controversy. His career progression has seen him become an off-field controversy, occasionally amplified by his on field antics and rarely superseded by his actual play. Barton has become an ineffectual midfield has-been, passing unnoticed through games while his legion of disciples await the next 140 characters of significance.

Therefore he is ably qualified to lead this team: a footballer who, so tainted by misdemeanours and his off-field reputation, is now not only defined by that reputation but apparently only exists to add to it. Anybody who witnessed his incredible self-deprecating yet earnest performance on Football Focus, or heard him passionately defend 'going to ground easily' to get Gervinho sent off on 6-0-6, would have seen the transformation - Barton consciously striving to capture his public with unrivalled displays of acting prowess. All this built on the shifting sands of his own affected public decency, Barton's role now makes so little but yet such perfect sense. 

The manager of our team is, like Carroll, someone who purports to appeal to older values, a time when the 'boot room' culture was prevalent in a successful era for Liverpool. Kenny Dalglish was responding to Liverpool's ever history-infected (or should that be inflicted) support when he returned as manager, and it seemed like quite a wise and unifying move in light of the (relative) turmoil the club had suffered. However, he has since become a caricature of these values - become a strangely defensive, brooding and acerbic figure who is seemingly determined to interpret an 'us against the world' mentality both literally and in its entirety.

It is this strange reenactment of the 70s/80s which led to Dalglish, consistently and incredibly, defending Luis Suarez as publicly as he possibly could, and damaging Liverpool's reputation as he did so. Throughout, and in every interview since, Dalglish has referred to 'the people who this football club means something to', in some form or another. This is a calculated ploy as it both alienates the rest of the footballing world by implying inferiority, and panders to the special sect-like personality trait of the collective Liverpool support, which is what got him the job in the first place. Just as Barton became a caricature of his public persona, and our strikers became caricatures of their floundering selves, Dalglish has become not the embodiment of the 'old Liverpool', but a parody of it - yet he seems to revel in this dank and depressing mess of his own making.

Capello vs Germany pt.2

A minor storm seems to be brewing in Germany over Fabio Capello's assertion that countries, are unfairly 'stealing' players, dragging them away from their family and roots at an inappropriately young age. The glaring irony of this statement coming from an Italian managing England, and the strange choice of Germany as an example to chastise, should not detract from an important theme here, one which Capello is brave and correct to raise.

On reading the Daily Mail article one can understand Germany's collective umbrage; the new national team is a rightly celebrated symbol of a multi-cultural society, in which players with various backgrounds (though either born or for the most part raised in Germany) combine teamspirit, individual skill and tactical discipline to devastating effect. However, when reading Capello's quotations a bit more closely, it seems that some selective and mischievous journalism from the Mail has targeted Germany when Capello's real target is clubs, not countries.

Apart from the dubious claim about Germany's five players with dual nationality, Capello almost solely talks about big European clubs stockpiling the best young players from around the globe, taking advantage of their often humble backgrounds. Is it fair to criticise this process, in which academies beyond saturated with uprooted talent? I think so, and Capello seems to think he has the backing of Michelle Platini on this issue. Is it fair to criticise players for switching international alliance? Well this is a grey area, but I think whilst some examples prove Capello points the German national team patently isn't one of them.

I'm sure most people would agree that players with dual nationality, who have grown up in one country and learnt the game there, are perfectly entitled to choose that country as their own. In fact Oezil's stance is just as valid as Hamit Altintop's (born in Gelsenkirchen, plays for Turkey). Heritage and upbringing both form a crucial part of somebody's identity, and if a person bases their self-identity on either they have a complete right to do so.

The problem with international football, and other sports (the England cricket team springs to mind), is that the 'naturalisation' of players is becoming a cheap, easy route to international 'honour'. Either due to a lack of a strong home league, or an abundance of talent, decide to represent a country they have no roots in. The high profile cases are Deco and Senna, but there are many more, for example Apoula Edel - the Cameroon born Armenian who represents his naturalised country despite having lived there for three years of his entire life.

Is there a simple answer to this problem? Well in the long run investing in the game at all levels, raising coaching standards and improving facilities could lead to a situation where this isn't necessary. In terms of changing the rules I think once a player has represented a nation at any level they have made their choice (if there was one) and shouldn't be able to change it. I don't think arbitrarily altering the length of time required to aquire dual nationality makes much sense - that is a symptom of the problem and not the cause.

Perhaps another attributing factor to this dilution of the core values of the international game is the example set by the so-called leading nations. When an Italian can coach the English national team, not too long after a Swede, why shouldn't traditionally smaller nations import talent?

Exiled in Berlin

A slow but ever increasing slide towards 'exile' status has taken over recently, apologies to my one follower on here for the many missed deadlines. Last season I managed one post and one match (West Ham away), which actually provide a nice symmetry as the post came just after our home match against the Hammers.

The turbulent and increasingly senseless, brash and self-congratulatory world of the Premier League has spun even further out of control. In some ways the landscape has been altered beyond recognition (consider the then supremacy of Manchester United, Chelsea and Arsenal to virtually all other teams), but then in others it remains drearily constant: the managerial merry-go-round, the regurgitative coverage and ticket prices completely out of line with world that exists beyond matchday.

I don't live near Villa Park anymore, I don't expect to go to any games this season, and I don't even live in England anymore. I've decided to reopen this blog to provide (if thats an appropriate word) my insight on German football. The Bundesliga is a refreshing antidote to the Premier League, especially as a supporter: tickets are cheap and stadiums grand, standing is accommodated, the atmosphere unthreatening (fans openly mix in the stands) but at the same time impressive (ok I'm still not completely convinced by the megaphone-men, but they do get things going) and the football is actually quite good.

On this last point English fans often point to the slow-paced, tactical matches abroad as synonymous with a boring waste of ninety minutes: where are the open-spaces? Where are the positionally inept midfielders low on short passing but great at high-octane, lung busting near misses? What, no tackling? Well the Bundesliga has the highest goals to game ratio in Europe and, apart from Bayern being a near constant in the top-two, is a competitive and even league. I like it, and am growing to love it.

Martin O'Neill

Last Monday evening Skybet's odds on the first Premier League manager to lose their job shifted. In an unexplained twist Martin O'Neill had resigned from his post and the club had accepted, and suddenly Villa's season was in total jeopardy. It is still far too early, especially in light of the complete lack of official explanation, to judge O'Neill's motives for leaving yet, as ever, the truth is on the pitch. Against West Ham United the Aston Villa players gave a clear demonstration that O'Neill had started to become a negative influence on the club.

Many new managers have enjoyed false dawns, and I am not suggesting that Kevin McDonald has suddenly become the ideal candidate for the job, but the manner of Villa's performance; the freedom and potential displayed, the pass-and-move football and above all enjoyment was a welcome tonic for any supporter. In truth this Villa side had rarely played attractive football under the previous manager, especially in home games. Spirited, dogged and counter-attacking, but not stylish, O'Neill's side consistently exasperated fans at Villa Park for the last two seasons.

As with most successful managers, O'Neill had a carefully cultivated public persona which should not influence any balanced assessment of his reign. Unfortunately the English media are unable to look past this persona, as anyone who sits through the following clip from the Sunday Supplement will surely testify -,23791,13989,00.html. In various ways the three journalists; Hayward, Holt and Robinson, repeatedly imply that Martin O'Neill is bigger than Aston Villa, and draw on the Clough stereotype to back up their opinions. O'Neill has not and will not follow in Clough's hallowed footsteps, and the outright disrespect he has shown by walking out five days before a new season has probably reduced his chances to do so elsewhere.

On a slightly separate note, Oliver Holt 'doesn't set any stall by what some bloke with General or Colonel in front of his name's got to say' (Holt had previously called General Charles Krulak 'Colonel Tom'). I invite any reader to look at Krulak's personal record of service (in Vietnam and Desert Storm) and try to defend the disgraceful words of this arrogant and ignorant excuse for a journalist.

Regardless of the short term causes for O'Neill's shock departure, the truth is that his relationship with the club had displayed frayed emotions for some time. Previously a messiah for Villa supporters, a growing faction became frustrated with his apparent inflexibility, though it must be said that many still retained confidence in O'Neill. This frustration occasionally poisoned the atmosphere, not altogether unreasonably, at Villa Park, to which O'Neill responded by subtly castigating the supporters. A number of reports also suggest that Villa's discreet chairman, Randy Lerner, was unwilling to match previous levels of financial support his manager.

The outcome of these uncertain but by no means hopeless circumstances is most poignant when one recalls the scenes which O'Neill's arrival at Midlands club heralded. For the first two and a half seasons progress was rapid, the stadium was full and good news emanated out of the club. However the fact that I, like many supporters, increasingly approached Saturdays with a feeling of dread rather than excitement tells its own story. Once O'Neill's initial impact subsided, he was increasingly exposed tactically and in his management of the club, and now his Villa legacy is another false dawn.

A Victory for Anti-Football

A deserved victory for Spain, but anti-football was the real winner - not just of this World Cup, but of the entire season. One can imagine Jose Mourinho's satisfaction at seeing the World's international footballing elite duplicate the tactics which brought him and Inter an historic treble this year. However whilst tactical sophistication, physical dominance and military drilled defences are all in their own way admirable, the constant niggling fouling, haranguing of referees and unsportsmanlike behaviour plunged to new depths in the last month.

It did so because nobody commented on it, save the odd commentator. We have become so used to the sight of Sergio Busquets squirming into the turf, his face contorted with burning agony, that we are no longer surprised when he springs up and slots into his space-closing, Xavi-feeding role. Busqets would probably win the award for the most cynical player in the tournament, though he faces stiff competition - notably from other members of his own team.

That is why this triumph for Spain leaves a slightly bitter taste in the mouth. The best footballing side in the world won, which is as it should be, but their cheating (now apparently called gamesmanship) and treatment of referees did them absolutely no credit whatsoever. Fouls occur in the game and at times some Spanish players may have been targeted by less skilled opposition, but from the first minutes of last nights final, and actually all the games I've seen from them, five players surrounded the referee at every opportunity.

This criticism does not absolve the offending tacklers from any blame. When lesser countries play against far better sides it is natural to expect solid defending which might test the boundaries of the rules of the game. Thats what the referees are there to monitor, which on the whole they did fairly well I thought. However Holland's unedifying performance last night was a disgrace to the history and prestige of the tournament. One red card, given when Howard Webb really had no choice, could have been three quite easily. The total-football stereotype has long been irrelevant, but after last night it will surely be consigned to history. Instead the anti-football culture reigns supreme.

So congratulations to Spain, it is a shame that noone really wanted to play football against them. Hopefully next year wide-players and new systems will conquer the double defensive shield of this World Cup and, much less likely, the cynical cheating which has become so rife in the game at all levels, and is no doubt taught in football's academies, will be stamped out. The problem with this last hope is that the responsibility lies with Fifa, and the receipts from this World Cup will probably make it a successful one.

Aston Villa 1-0 Birmingham City

How cruel for Birmingham fans to see their team to come to the ground of their hated rivals, have an equal share of the game and more clear cut chances, yet still suffer defeat. Even worse a defeat that leaves their neighbours with a slim chance of playing Champions League football next season. For the second time this season Villa stole all three derby-day points with a goal in the last ten minutes. For the second time it was an unconvincing and barely deserved victory.

A home win looked the least likely outcome as the second half wore on. Uninspired though Villa were in the first half, they still managed to create opportunities and pass through Birmingham's packed midfield on occasion. In the second forty-five even these rare moments of quality deserted the home side, and Blues grew in confidence as a result, seriously threatening to score four times in quick succession.

Yet whatever credit Birmingham's players should claim for their composed performance in this period will be overshadowed by some less savoury moments. First was the unfurling of a bed-sheet banner in the Birmingham fans section which read 'Danny Is A Grass'. This refers to one witnesses of the tragic murder of Christopher Priest, run over after the last derby at Villa Park by three Birmingham fans, who are now in prison.

Sadly it isn't the first time Blues fans have chosen to show their support for the jailed driver Lee Mockble, and I doubt it will be the last. Anyone who wants to read more about this story and find out the facts can do so here.

This crass behaviour off the pitch was then matched by those wearing blue and white shirts on it. I would have been angry if that penalty was given against us (though many have supported Atkinson's decision) but Stephen Carr's fit of spitting, stamping rage and scuffing up of the penalty spot was disgraceful for a club captain. Walking off the pitch he then made an obscene gesture in the direction of the North Stand - our family stand. He'll probably now become a club legend, no doubt joining Paul Tait (look him up).

Derby games always have an electric atmosphere and we know that emotions run high in the stadium, but it is the responsibility of players - particularly captains - to try and maintain their professionalism. Carr lost his, as ours have in the past, and he deserves his one match ban.

All of which obscures what was a vital victory for Villa. Now we go to Man City in the knowledge that a positive result will give us a good chance of finishing fifth, which in my view would cap a great season, and a win leaves us with a glimmer of fourth and all its glamour. Reading various recent articles one could be forgiven for thinking the Premiership is rubbish this year, what with Chelsea and Manchester United having the temerity to actually lose games. On the contrary, I think it has been a fantastic season, and long may the challenge to the sky-sponsored hegemony continue.

"Typical Germans"

Alex Ferguson's ungracious post-match interviews have been a feature of our football landscape for a long time, long enough for nobody to really bat an eye-lid at the latest xenophobic outburst.

Interestingly, though, I think Ferguson betrayed regret at his own team with these comments. Rafael's sending off was completely justified, no matter how many Bayern players helped him on his way. Equally justified, had it happened, would have been Dan Van Buyten's red card for seeking out Wayne Rooney's injured ankle and stamping on it (for the second time).

Where was the typical United response to this foul? Rooney hopped in pain, but didn't throw himself to the ground and writhe in agony (which, lets be honest, we've all seen him do). Likewise United's midfield, betraying inexperience, failed to follow in the hallowed footsteps of Keane, Giggs, Scholes, Beckham etc. by surrounding the referee and exacerbating the situation. Gibson and Fletcher were rabbits in the headlights - Carrick as anonymous as ever.

Ferguson, as ever, used his post-match interview to deflect criticism from his players, probably in the knowledge that our press would love nothing more than an opportunity to slag off those bloody Germans.

A Dose of World Cup Reality

Throughout the season murmurings of South Africa have become tremors of excitement; Capello is photographed or quoted at every turn, phrases such as 'on the plane' and even 'in the waiting lounge' have somehow entered the vernacular when describing players' chances of making the squad - all we need now is a World Cup anthem.

It's the time of the season when possible squads and starting elevens are mulled over by every fan in the land, Brazil shirts become omnipresent in a country five thousand miles away in which less than one thousandth can claim Brazilian heritage, and nauseatingly triumphant adverts creep onto our televisions. On the field if a player stays on the ground for more than two seconds after a challenge their country's World Cup prospects are immediately questioned.

For most top nations this would be an overreaction, unfortunately for England if the player in question is Wayne Rooney it's probably reasonable. This highlights the only aspect of the whole World Cup hype that the media have failed to pick up on - England essentially have no chance of progressing into the latter stages of the competition.

Rooney, on reputation and form, is England's only World Class player heading into the tournament. Ashley Cole would probably qualify if fit, Terry and Ferdinand would like to think they do but haven't now for a couple of seasons and Gerrard arguably never was (based on international performances). Capello is in fact England's shining hope alongside Rooney - a manager who can inspire and demands respect from his players and any opposition.

However elsewhere the squad and first team is full of glaring deficiencies: there is no reliable goalkeeper, there are currently question marks over every defensive position, our best winger (Lennon) is injured, a pedestrian midfield of Barry and Lampard have never proven themselves in tandem against quality opponents, Gerrard has spent most of the season in the doldrums and beyond Rooney the striking department looks toothless at this level (Defoe could prove me wrong here, but I doubt he will get the chance to).

So before any media-drum starts beating our brave boy's chances we should recognise that our squad lacks the technical talent, mentality and experience of big international games to be anywhere near favourites for the competition. And when we go out in the quarter-finals these will be the reasons for it; not poor refereeing, cheating foreigners or the heat.


In virtually every manager's reign there comes one defining result. In recent times one could have been forgiving for hoping that a Wembley win might bring Martin O'Neill his moment of history, his claim to Villa greatness. Sadly it seems that his tenure may be defined by the most harrowing defeat for many a year. Wembley dreams, though still possible, have been shattered and O'Neill's defining moment instead joins the legion of underachievement. Think Doncaster 3-0 Villa (O'Leary), Birmingham 3-0 Villa (Taylor) and Blackburn 5-0 Villa (Little).

Whilst our manager undoubtedly has the managerial nouse to revive our flagging fortunes ominous portents appear to be hovering over him - our worst defeat in forty years naturally acting as the catalyst, but not sole cause, for wider fan unrest, reports of more rifts with players and alleged friction with the chairman. There was even a bogus Talksport lead that he has walked away from the job. O'Neill must certainly be feeling the heat right now.

And so should he after a performance so abject and result so shocking it took me three days to even watch the highlights (thankfully on Saturday I only watched the first half). The cliche 'men against boys' does not do justice to the chasm between the two sides; this was marines storming the toddler's sandpit. Even more depressing was John Terry's revelation after the game that Chelsea knew we would be ripe for the picking after 'fifty-five or sixty minutes'. So Chelsea fully expected to coast for at least a third of the game against a bedraggled, listless, energy-sapped side - it was no surprise for them to score seven against a top-half side.

I don't feel it is necessary to analyse any specific points from the performance. The whole team was abysmal, it's as simple as that. Now the next few weeks only provide them with the opportunity to restore pride to the club. If a response does not come this season then I can only sadly infer that O'Neill, our saviour four years ago, has lost the dressing room and his appetite for the job. Conversely he can reignite the spirit that saw us over-perform so often during his tenure.

Two weeks ago I posted and predicted a crucial run-in for all teams, and felt that we would come up short. Well the end of the season is even more integral to our club's future prospects now, even though any chance of fourth spot had quite patently dissipated with those insipid home draws before the Stamford Bridge horrow-show. Simply put - Martin O'Neill must prove to our owner, staff and supporters that he can improve our club and fulfill the ambition we all felt when he took over. The fans and players are still there for O'Neill, on the whole, the situation is definitely retrievable, but it has to start soon.

"In light of ongoing and perplexing reports - despite my efforts to bring clarity to the situation earlier today - I would like to reiterate one or two points which, to me, are essential. Every summer, since taking this job in August 2006, I have sat down and discussed the season in general with my chairman, Randy Lerner, attempting also to formulate plans for how we hope to keep improving the club year on year. This summer will be no different. I have a yearly rolling contract and I hope to continue to do a job, the challenges of which I enjoy immensely."

Martin O'Neill

The Race for Fourth

The final Champions League position, like it or not, is hugely important this season. In fact it cannot be underestimated just how large the ramifications may be. Consider that Liverpool are already hanging on by the skin of their teeth financially, and would surely have to sell Torres, and possibly Gerrard, if they finished fifth or lower (unless that mythical takeover happens). Even without speculating on who else might leave both of those players are irreplaceable, and they still couldn't afford to sack Benitez if he chose to stay on.

Liverpool are a big enough club with a committed enough fan-base for financial meltdown a la Leeds to be unthinkable, but then an immediate recovery to the heights of last season is equally unthinkable. Liverpool need to finish fourth more than any of the other three contenders. Whilst that might work in their favour, and they have players with experience of high pressure situations, it is no guarantee for results on the pitch. And the team have been consistently abysmal this season.

Manchester City not only crave Champions League football like everybody else, but now feel like they belong in the competition. Hundreds of millions of pounds and arsehole chief executives tend to lead to such delusions. In fact imagining the lengths to which Gary Cook's smugness could stretch if City actually achieved anything is surely enough to convince anyone that they cannot, for the good of the game. Yet the good of the game is an abstract and much abused value - the hard currency of results and league position cannot be argued with.

If City do finish fourth then the combination of Champions League football and perfectly understandable £££ related professional career decisions could well see them replace Liverpool on all of Sky and ESPN's sickeningly populist advertisements. Even if its only a matter of time before all of this happens anyway, I'd just like to stave it off as long as possible.

Spurs are the team in possession at the moment, and it must also be said the team in form. There is always the danger that a possible cup semi-final appearance may provide a distraction and tire the squad. However the rather chastening experience of clicking 'My Club' then 'Spurs' on the BBC site has revealed they face Portsmouth at home after Fulham next week, the ideal game really. The Spurs squad is durable and has good variation in key positions - I'm sure they can deal with the extra games. A lot has been said about their run in but no game is easy at this stage of the season against teams from either end of the table - its a one-game-at-a-time battle from here on in.

If they do finish fourth Spurs, who already punch above their weight in the transfer market, could really improve their squad and move on to the next level (though I'm sure any such talk is tempered by memories of the Juande Ramos era and all its promises). If they do not then we could reasonably expect to see any of Defoe, Huddlestone, Pavluychenko, Modric, Lennon and Gomes turning out in sky blue/royal blue/some version of red shirts next season. That would mean another season of rebuilding at Spurs, and realistically little chance of challenging for 'honours' (as if fourth should really be something to celebrate) next season.

If Spurs represent a lot of neutral fans best chance of a change at the top, then Aston Villa are probably the side that most fans hope make it (excluding Birmingham, West Brom, and undecided Craig Gardner-esque supporters). Martin O'Neill remains as popular as ever and a largely British, young squad has attracted many plaudits. As a Villa fan I would love us to finish fourth but realistically I just don't see it happening. Anyone who has consistently watched us this season would be as unconvinced, especially when we appear to be flagging in crucial positions and O'Neill, infuriatingly, refuses to trust squad players to start games, or even come off the bench for any meaningful period of time.

In fact I don't actually see us as being realistic contenders for fourth spot. Games in hand mean nothing until they're won, and the last few games have really provided as many questions as answers about our team. If the unthinkable were to happen it would be wonderful for the club, the area and, I think, the league in general. However as it stands we are definite outsiders, a role that suits us as a club but also recognises the deficiencies in our squad.

The end of the season will doubtless see twists, shocks, and general mayhem - the first two thirds of the season deserve to serve such an end. And with the title race seemingly between three sides who would all deserve to be Champions, and the relegation battle being fought out by numerous teams who are definitely bad enough to go down, this season might just be one to savour.

The FA Cup

After an hour of this weekend's first quarter final any watcher could have been excused for asking what all the fuss is about. A low-key, low standard game between Portsmouth and Birmingham City didn't, on the face of it, do any justice to the Greatest Cup Competition in the World©. Portsmouth, clearly bereft of confidence, failed to rouse their usually fierce home support whilst Birmingham's toothless performance belied a seemingly inflated league position and lack of quality in attacking areas.

And then the spark was lit by Fredric Piquionne. Some would call it scrappy, or a poacher's finish, but it was the classic FA Cup goal. The ball seems to take on a mind of it's own in the box on these occasions, confusing defenders and strikers alike. Fortune favoured the Frenchman and he stabbed home from inside the six yard box. Now the Pompey Chimes struck and, whereas previously only Jamie O'Hara's performance and effort had matched the occasion, now the whole team responded.

Piquionne's second less than five minutes later was a fine break away effort. Causing havoc in the Birmingham box equalled only by the Fratton End's manic, cathartic celebrations moments later, he outwitted Birmingham's stunned defence and swept home. In one moment all the stress and desperation of financial strife, administration and near certain relegation were ecstatically surmounted. The whole club rose as one and refused to buckle, and how fitting that the FA Cup should provide the scene for this resurrection, however flitting it could prove to be.

Birmingham then rallied and had a perfectly good goal not awarded when Ridgewell forced the ball a good six inches over the line, only for the linesman to inexplicably not see a goal which was obvious even on television from a far inferior angle. That said Ridgewell must himself take some of the blame for not burying a chance from within a yard. McLeish graciously refused to lay all the blame at the feet of the offending official, admitting that the goal may have proven to be only a consolation. One feels the Birmingham fans will not be so magnanimous.

The weekend continued in fine style I though with a raucous cup tie following at Craven Cottage. Spurs will feel that a draw and replay at White Hart Lane leaves them with a decent chance of progressing, and indeed on chances, if not overall play, then Fulham should have won the game. Zoltan Gera was especially culpable, missing a gilt-edged header from the edge of the six yard box.

The game was fast, direct and played in the right spirit, from what I saw, in front of a vocal crowd. The same description could be applied to our game at the Madejski earlier, yet the scoreline and storyline could not be more different.

Firstly Reading deserve all the plaudits for their performance. Without wanting to patronise the Royals they did exactly what a lower league team has to on such occasions, and they actually did it with style and flair in key areas. When Shane Long scored his first - a close range header after Mills flicked on a corner - it was no surprise and no more than they deserved.

Previously Jimmy Kebe had lashed home a left-footed half volley, only for referee Mike Dean to rightly disallow the effort for a push by Simon Church in the build up. From every set piece Reading had looked dangerous, as they did throughout the game. In midfield and defence they were first to every ball; Mills nullified Carew, repeatedly stepping in front of him and winning the ball with ease and midfielders Sugurdsson and Tabb combined industry with effective passing. Only two last ditch Richard Dunne blocks prevented Reading from improving on their lead before Long notched his second after a fine counter attack, involving Sigurdsson then Kebe.

Villa were frankly appalling in the first period. I'm not convinced by the argument that last week's final effected us too much - the second half performance disproved this. Rather we were just not on the pace of the game and not at it against eleven players who were. At any level of football that approach will only end in defeat. A dubious offside decision prevented Carew from scoring but really it would have been a travesty in a first half that saw virtually no threat from any of our attacking players in the face of committed defending.

The second half demanded that we fight for every ball, concentrate completely in defence and use the ball much more intelligently in the final third, whilst matching the workrate of our opponents. Credit to the players that they were able to do this and turned around a seemingly impossible deficit into a 4-2 win. It was never comfortable until Carew blasted home a penalty for his third and our fourth - though Heskey could have wrapped the game up far earlier.

Reading rallied from Villa's early second half onslaught to match us for the last twenty minutes or so. A spectacular goal-line clearance from Ashley Young was emblematic of our defence's efforts in the second period: committed blocks and saves were demanded from all of them. In the end we just about did enough to book a place in semi-final. This should go down as one of the classic FA Cup games, and I suppose from a neutral point of view it was probably great to watch.

Chelsea's comfortable victory over Stoke rounded off the weekend. Lampard scored a deflected goal, Terry a deflected header - both from corners. Stoke huffed and puffed but didn't really threaten the nonetheless unconvincing Hilario. The draw has paired us with Chelsea in the semi-final and I hope Cech's understudy is still between the sticks.

So a fine weekend of knockout football ends with one great story, one classic near-upset, one favourite marching ominously on and one unresolved London derby. No complaints from the fans, I suspect. Here's hoping that Villa can turn over Chelsea at Wembley, and that they sort the pitch + ref out before we get down there.

PSG 0-3 Marseille

An awful night for PSG ended with one set of supporters fighting the police, the other throwing flares at them, and both sets abusing each other - "Ici c'est Paris" indeed. The cursed club can, however, only blame themselves for this heavy defeat. Toothless attacking play allied with a porous defence meant that Marseille really strolled to victory.

The substitutions Paris made tell their own story: Traore, the centre back, was withdrawn before the 70 minute mark, captain Makalele followed soon after and striker Hoarau was deservedly replaced by the ever hapless Kezman. Essentially the PSG coach showed the whole stadium what he thought about the spine of his team, and the performance they had given. The responsibility, though, surely lies with both parties.

All this capped off an awful football weekend for me; Villa lost the cup final, Hibs drew, Cheltenham and Hertha lost. Still each of those results was probably the most likely, and I don't think Villa can have too many complaints about losing to Man Utd. PSG certainly can't after this performance, in which Steve Mandanda, the Marseille goalkeeper, was only really called into action in the last ten minutes.

With the score 0-3 by this time it was much too little, far too late. In the French 'clasico' this was never going to be acceptable and the PSG supporters let their dissatisfaction be known. The ironic cheers which met Kezman's lunge on Gabriel Heinze, for which he was booked, expressed the feeling that PSG simply did not 'wet the shirt' enough in their biggest home game of the season.

So my first experience of live French football was a bad one, but at least I saw an extreme match, not a boring 0-0. It was also in some ways an appropriate introduction to the culture of PSG. Essentially there are two sets of supporters - the Auteuil and the Boulogne. The latter are French nationalists and racists who sing La Marseillaise, the former a more racially diverse representation of France's capital city.

A protest by the Marseille fans meant that none were present at the game, but this only meant that the 1500 extra police would be caught in the middle of the more explosive battles between both sets of PSG fans. The Auteuil are actually on strike at the moment - they turn up to games but don't sing in protest against the universally hated owner Colony - yet broke this silence to exchange insults with the Boulogne, and protest against Colony.

The match was described by my long-term Paris supporting friend as the worst he'd ever seen. In fact the only saving grace was Heinze's first-half header hit the post then crept along the line without crossing it. If la sallope had scored there really would have been trouble.

Leeds 1-3 Spurs

A passionate cup tie played in a good spirit in front of a packed Elland Road ultimately ended in disappointment for most of those fans. Chants like 'Fa Cup, who gives a fuck' from the West Yorkshire contingent might purport otherwise, but don't be fooled - this was one of those big nights that Leeds has craved for so long, and provided the stage that many feel they should more regularly occupy.

Fitting then, perhaps, that this stage should end up providing the platform for other forgotten stars. Gareth Bale and David Bentley excelled, especially in a second half in which the Leeds midfield were bypassed and defence continuously opened up by Spurs' slick passing game. Defoe will no doubt get all the plaudits he deserves for a predatory strikers performance, but it was Bentley and Bale who consistently got the best of their markers and delivered testing balls into good areas.

I missed the first ten minutes of the match - Elland Road is hard to get to from the city - but the first half was a captivating affair. Snodgrass caught the eye for Leeds and seemed to have the beating of Bale whilst Beckford, perhaps more on reputation than performance, was causing problems for the Spurs defenders. At the other end Defoe was a constant menace and had already been clear of the Leeds defence twice before he opened the scoring with a mishit effort. The Leeds response was immediate, forcing a series of corners and freekicks, and Gomez into one great save, before the equaliser came.

If the home support thought that would prelude another famous cup scalp they were wrong, as Spurs came out in the second half with much greater intent and control. Still this might be the best result for both teams as Leeds stall in the league. And in any case its the FA Cup, who gives a &$*&?

Back on the Holte

On the train home from Liverpool I remember discussing the upcoming end to the season with my Everton supporting friend. The following Saturday we played Wigan at home whilst Everton faced a tough trip to the Emirates on Sunday. He told me that you never knew what could happen against a side like Wigan at home, and I laughed him off, certain that we would make a fight for fifth place.

That was the back end of the 07/08 season. In the end we lost at home to Wigan (again), and drew away at West Ham - a game best remembered for Olof Mellberg's incredible free-shirt gesture. Joel was right, and Everton beat us to fifth. I was so depressed I didn't bother blogging that match, and then left the country for a while (this was planned, not due to the depression). Now I'm back, and a week short of twenty months later I was back on the Holte End for the second leg of the cup semi against Blackburn - not a bad return!

Belatedly I've decided to reopen this blog for any game, Villa or otherwise, or football issue. I was never sure how many people bothered reading it in the first place, but welcome back if you are.

Everton 2-2 Aston Villa

Finally I have seen us score away from home this season. Unfortunately my location in the Gwladys Street end prevented any form of celebration for either of our goals, however despite this Goodison remains my favourite away trip, beating Newcastle because I prefer the ground. Its sad that Everton feel that they have to leave Goodison; a beautiful and ground-breaking stadium designed by the revered architect Archibald Leitch (of old Trinity Road fame). A ground which spiritually carries real history and achievement from the past whilst physically bearing all the passion and belief you would hope to associate with such a grand old club, embedded in the terraces of Everton.

This borderline sycophancy may root from the similarities I think there are between Everton and Villa as clubs, nonetheless I have been far more impressed by the traditional grounds I have seen around the country (Fratton Park comes to mind) than more modern and soulless imitators (Eastlands or St James for example). The similarities between our clubs are not limited to history or stadia at present either. This was a competitive and even contest where the mutual respect both teams held for each other was evident, no more so than in the shirt-swapping at the end.

In the first half we won the midfield battle, with Barry finding, and intelligently using, space. However for all our tactical superiority we created few real openings and for this Everton's resolute defence must be given credit. Ashley Young provided the biggest scare, crashing a trademark whipped free-kick against the crossbar. The second half saw a complete reversal, with Everton over-crowding our midfield three and dominating territorially. Again, though, we largely limited the number of clear chances they created; the four goals really came out of very little.

It was surprising that in a game where no attacking player really stood out, and both defences were stubborn, that four goals were scored. Our strikers took their two chances whilst Everton benefitted from some luck with their first deflected goal and a back post finish from Yobo. However with both goals they exposed us down the flanks and exploited the spaces created well.

Maybe my unbiased report of this game has been coloured by the company I held in this match, and the natural suppression of any Villa sympathies I wanted to express has carried on into this blog. I do think, though, that here both sides played well, both managers managed well and both sets of supporters were heavily involved as well. The symmetry seems to never end.

On a less laudatory note on the train back to Leeds I was on a train of mixed football supporters and normal people who had to put up with the childish antics of a few of our fans, swigging Strongbow and shouting Villa chants at people who mostly didn't care. Unfortunately one Everton fans eventually took offence to being continually bantered and socked one in the face. Thankfully the conductor handled it well and it didn't get out of hand. I hope incidents like this don't tarnish our reputation as fans but after seeing their antics at some other grounds it might be too late.

This was one of the most enjoyable games of the season as a footballing spectacle. I can't believe there is only one game left of it (for me) and two for the team. This last game is Wigan at home on Saturday, and for the first time in a few years we are going into the run in with something tangible to play for: Uefa Cup football, and if Rangers can get into the semi-finals, and possibly more, who knows what we can achieve?

Aston Villa 5-1 Birmingham City

Writing this blog so late after the match has given me the opportunity to preface it with a tribute to Christopher Priest. This young man was tragically killed in a car accident in the hours following the game. I'd like to take this small opportunity I have to pay respects to him and his family, who have asked for a minutes silence at the final home game of the season. The response of the city of Birmingham, Villa and Blues fans alike, has been commendable following this terrible accident.

Any football match comes second to a tragedy like this. RIP Christopher Priest.

Finally we have given Birmingham the thrashing they deserve. The last time they stained Villa Park we were down at their level, fighting to avoid the real threat of relegation. Just over two years later we are light years ahead of them, both on and off the pitch; a statement backed up by the utter dominance of our team in killing the game and the beautiful mosaic our owner has put on the Holte End. Its a great touch and is just emblematic of his total appreciation of the supporters.

I've only been to one second-city derby before was the last one at Villa Park. As soon as I got into the ground last Sunday I noticed a distinctly different atmosphere: less intense, less hate-filled and far more confident. If you compare the two Villa teams that lined up in these games, and the positions they hold in the table, its not hard to see why. The start of the game, though, was typically tight, with potshots at both ends, most notably from Petrov and Murphy.

Then after around ten minutes a Gareth Barry inspired Villa cranked up the tempo and blew the Blues away for the next hour. It was an absolute joy to watch. There has been talk recently of our captain leaving to satisfy his ambitions of playing in the Champions League and winning trophies. On the evidence of Sunday he may well achieve that at Villa, but if he doesn't he deserves it somewhere else. His industrious, skilled and comitted display provided a brilliant example which the rest of the team followed. A goal, which he was close to coming to twice, would have made his a peerless game.

After around ten minutes of this spell we took a deserved lead through a thrilling Ashley Young finish as he expertly dispatched a bouncing ball into the corner of the net at the Holte End (thank you Mr Ridgewell (pt1) for letting us attack the Holte first). This released the tension round the ground as delirious celebrations in a mass of claret and blue swarmed over it. Barry almost added a sumptuous second, beating two men and forcing a top save from Taylor, before Carew got on the scoresheet five minutes before half time.

The big man had one of those games where the ball always stuck too him and defenders always bounced off. His goal, typically from a Young free-kick, would have ended the game against another team, we knew these derbies too well to relax. Carew is a rare player in many different ways. His physique means he can be unplayable on occasion against any defence. He is also a born crowd pleaser; his celebration for the first goal, picking a fist-clenching ball-boy up and roaring with him before high-fiving as many fans as possible, typifies the great relationship he has with us. In the second half he was rampant; smashing through challenges, bossing an embarrassed Jerome, bullying Ridgewell constantly (once right in front of their furious supporters, well those who bothered staying) and scoring a deserved second goal. Three more games like this from the big man and we will see Uefa Cup football at Villa Park next season.

The third was crucial as it definitely ended the game, we have had nightmares before against them but not from that position, though the supporter next to me couldn't celebrate until one minute of injury time was announced. The fourth came soon after and provided another memorable Ashley Young moment. Collecting the ball from Gabby he dummied past two players before surging into the box and putting in the rebound whilst a static defence could only watch. Four nil against Blues was dreamland, surely? Well despite a well-worked Forsell consolation there was no need for my neighbours' nerves: Villa were utterly dominant here all over the pitch. We also just wanted it more, and the lack of fight from Birmingham's team should be a cause for real concern.

The fifth goal was the one we all wanted from Agbonlahor (thank you Mr Ridgewell again) to perfectly round off the game. As if this wasn't enough Mellberg was cleverly substituted by O'Neill, giving him a memorable reception as he left the field which he made the most of, pumping his arms and shouting to all corners of the ground. Olof has been a great servant of this club and often deserved better than we've given him. He goes to Juve with all our best wishes.

Referees have been slated on here a few times but Mark Clattenburg on Sunday gave an exemplary performance. A lot was made on MOTD about his shove on Nafti for what can only be described as twattish behaviour. I didn't see this at the time and don't think there was anything wrong with it. In a normally tempestuous game that has seen its fair share of cards in previous fixtures there were no bookings until well into the second half and the game flowed throughout. Clattenburg deserves a lot of credit for the way he controlled this game, particularly in comparison to the way others have failed to.

So the ordeal of derby-day is over, possibly until next season and possibly longer. Next Sunday represents a far bigger game, with Uefa Cup football on the line. Hopefully it will end in a convincing result as last Sunday did, only this time hopefully we'll be able to celebrate properly.

Aston Villa 4-0 Bolton Wanderers

For the first time on Saturday morning getting up early and getting down to Leeds station seemed like a chore. The last few weeks have seen some fairly unconvincing performances to say the least; I was actually at Old Trafford but couldn't bring myself to relive the game on here. Then I got to Villa Park, the sun came out and suddenly Ashley Young ignited the side and everythings seems ok again.

I single Ashley out for special praise because, although the first half saw a steady team performance with some quality, it was his insouciance and sublimity that was key in opening a fragile Bolton side up. Whether it be from the left, the right or set pieces he was a constant threat, rediscovering the knack of beating players at will which made him an England certainty previously this season.

The fact that Young had this freedom can be accredited to a tactical masterstroke from our manager. All season we have struggled with having no natural width down both flanks, and recently Ashley has struggled to come to terms with being a doubly marked man. O'Neill's answer to both was to give our star performer a free role ahead of Barry, Petrov and Reo-Coker. Limited as Bolton may be, this change seemed to bring the best out of not only Young, but also Barry and Petrov (who had his best game of the season).

Barry's first open play goals and, as he seemed to be keen to point out in his post-match interview, two assists were no more than he deserved for an all-round display of high quality. He started the exquisite move for the crucial second goal, spinning a clever ball out to Young when Bouma was the more obvious option. Suddenly space had been created and three passes later Barry sprinted in behind the Bolton defence to collect from Young. One fine cross on the run later and Gabby had his first goal in 2008, and his first at Villa Park since October sometime. It meant a lot to him, and it meant a lot to us.

When Petrov was named in the starting line-up there were a few boos from some people, and a lot of general moaning. Late in the game O'Neill clever substituted him to a standing ovation. In between he displayed nous, aggression, tenacity, vision and skill. All the attributes we paid for and expected two summers ago. One performance isn't enough for him to have made it here, but hopefully he has now found his role in the team. He can definitely expect to start the remaining games this season. What really impressed me about his display was its dynamism; one moment he was tackling in our half and winning the ball, the next he was sending a pinpoint pass over the top to Gabby. In fact the outstanding passes of the day were both his, one in both halves to Gabby that could easily have led to goals.

As if all these positives weren't enough we managed to keep a clean sheet, and I haven't even talked about Bouma who was outstanding. The team huddle at the beginning, interestingly led by Reo-Coker, seemed to do the trick. If the same movement, quality and commitment had been shown against Middlesbrough and Sunderland then we would have easily won both of those games. This standard now has to be matched for at least the rest of this season.

However the game was somewhat soured, at least at the start, by the senseless booing of Gavin McCann. I never rated him that highly, and probably shouted at him a lot of times myself when he was playing for us, but he never moaned and was a decent professional. And I got to speak to him on the phone once and he apologised for the no-show at City in the cup. Yet some felt he deserved to be booed, I have no idea why. Strangely JLloyd Samuel, who I feel disrespected us as a club more, was applauded as he warmed up. At least Gary Cahill was more deserving of the great reception he got from the home fans, I wonder if his good friend Liam Ridgewell will be in two weeks.

Next week we play Derby away. The fear of potential embarrassment is actually stronger than any hope of victory for me. Surely they are going to win more than one game this season? Maybe not, and after this weekend I can't really see it being against us, though they did quite well up at Goodison on Sunday. In two weeks time its an altogether different kind of derby, I hope my nerves aren't too frayed to be able to write up some kind of report here.

Aston Villa 0-1 Sunderland

The wheels are coming off. Suddenly Villa Park has transformed from a vibrant, happy cauldron of support into a weighty, negative, gloomy place. The expectations have been raised by our over-performing squad and O'Neil, through his success, seems to have made a rod for his own back. Our captain, largely anonymous again, has spoken since of the pressure of playing at home and its that word 'pressure' and our failure to cope with it that is most worrying for me. When we have an opportunity and need to win at Villa Park we seem to crumble somewhat. The winning mentality hasn't been installed yet, though thats only to be expected at this stage. In some ways I feel karma won't allow Villa, Hibs and Cheltenham Town to all have good runs at the same time, and at the moment Villa are being punished for my other teams good form.

This game was largely non-descript from our point of view. Bouma was solid again, and Reo-Coker combative, but other than that it is hard to extract any positivity from the performance. Harewood had his usual five minute impact but he is not good enough to do any more than give the team a slight lift. I feel O'Neil should have saved that little lift for a bit later in the game, but it is hard to criticise him for being proactive. In the end we were beaten by a team that could barely put a decent move together yet deserved to score after a succession of late attacks, none of which were dealt with convincingly by or peturbingly fragile defence. Carson has joined a growing list of crowd scapegoats, even the away fans were getting at him a bit last week, and its hard to see him recovering from the confidence void he is clearly in.

The game on Saturday was a wholly depressing experience, and one we haven't been accustomed to seeing this season. It was brightened up, though, by the half-time entertainment. First a lady proposed to someone in the North Stand, who I think was called Tony Scott. Unfortunately this was only by a message on the screen and announcement, not by pictures. It took a while to get the message back that he had said yes, which was met by a chorus of unfriendly boos from the Holte End and an amusing chorus of 'You don't know what you're doing', which was the highlight of the entire day.

This unusual event was backed up by a game of 7-a-side on the pitch between the pupils of local junior special needs schools. The fast paced, high-octane quality of this contest was in stark contrast to what we had previously witnessed and the thirty or so thousand people who stayed in their seats to watch were treated to the most entertaining football of the day. The fact that it still ended 0-0 is telling. Of the players I thought the number 7 and 14 for the team defending at the Holte looked quite handy; they took a few decent corners and went on a few good runs between them. Between the rest there was a lot of commitment, and a few good saves from the goalkeepers. One in front of the Holte drew a chant of 'England's No.1', it'll be interesting to see if Scott Carson is similarly recieved in a few weeks time.

After this welcome interlude we lapsed into the same pattern of uncreative football that had been on show before the break. The supporters vented their frustration regularly and whilst everybody has a right to voice their opinion I wish they would be more circumspect with criticism, especially when its directed at young players, and especially when those players are lifelong Villa fans. Our season is evaporating in front of us and the supporters need to transmit more positive vibes to help the players through it. Its on to Old Trafford next week, which I have the dubious pleasure of visiting for the first time. That could be the perfect resurrection for our season, and its a funny old game so you never know.

Portsmouth 2-0 Aston Villa

A defeat Saturday saw us slip one position to 7th, but my Dad was quite upbeat after the game, and over the course of a few days my disappointment has disipated. We were looking for a reaction to that poor show at Villa Park last week and, by and large, we got one. Infact if the two goalkeepers had switched we would have won, maybe even if we switched Gabby for Defoe (who was annoyingly a transfer prospect in January).

Portsmouth nowadays are a genuinely good team. Everyone knows about their athleticism and pace but seeing it at pitch level was really impressive. Twice this season Distin has completely bossed Carew, which defenders of supposedly better teams have completely failed to do. Maybe Carew could have done more but he was certainly in a tough battle. This pattern was repeated over most of the pitch. Papa Bouba Diop vs Shaun Maloney was one of the most unfair battles I think I've even seen in Premiership game, though Maloney did manage to work some space on a few occasions. In the midfield Muntari, though ridiculously sent off, and Diarra were irrepressible. There star performer, though, was David James. I would say he always saves his best games for us but he just carried on his impressive form on Saturday. I was just waiting for him to make a crucial, high profile classic James error but after Saturday I'm not sure if its coming.

In the face of such organised, spirited and most of all capable opposition our performance was also quite satisfying in some respects. After a dodgy first half hour Barry and Reo started to give us a platform in the game. At this point we were one behind thanks to indeterminate defending from Laursen, inept positioning from Carson and high quality finishing from Defoe. I felt, though, that we were still in the game and starting to create chances, both from set plays where we looked dangerous (when they weren't chipped down James' throat) and open play where Ashley Young in particular looked dangerous.

Then we made a series of crucial mistaked. Barry took a short freekick to Mellberg when he should have waited and put it in the box. Mellberg isn't the most composed footballer and his rushed pass put Ashley under pressure and saw him dispossessed. With our centre backs both forward this wasn't exactly smart football. Carson's aberration after, though, which saw him needlessly rush off his line for the second time only to smash the ball into Reo-Coker and back into the vacant goal, can only be described as mindless. I think he has been encouraged to come off his line more, we saw him do this against Boro to good effect, but it is not his natural inclination and yesterday showed why. There is a good keeper there waiting to shine, and it won't take him till he's 38 to fulfill his promise consistently, but we are not a Scott Carson charity and his place here should now be on the line.

After that it was always going to be a struggle. Portsmouth have won every game in which they've scored first, MOTD reliably tells me, and in the end did so comfortably here, though if Gabby had scored with an open goal at his mercy from three yards just after half time it could have been different. His form is starting to become worrying; not only not scoring but also the lack of searing runs which marked the early and middle parts of the season. I thought Maloney was unlucky to make way for Marlon instead of Gabby, but he went through the same sort of run last season and came out of it well.

In the latter part of the game we huffed and puffed but didn't really get anywhere. Harewood rouses the fans and has a great attitude but in terms of play his impact on games is minimal. The fact that he is pretty much our only attacking option on the bench says it all about the lack of depth in our squad. Salifou did look ok when he came on in central midfield, and I would be tempted to put either of those two into the starting line-up, just to freshen things up a bit.

The stand out performer of the last two games has been Wilfred Bouma. In fact I don't think I can remember him making an obvious mistake, other than probably giving the ball away. I can't remember a poor performance from Freddie all season and I think he is nearly ever present. This has been a really good season for him and, despite the Fiver might get stuck into him about his weight, I see him as one of the best left-backs in the country, though his attacking lets him down sometimes.

So our mini-unbeaten run is over and instead the staleness of poor form is lurking over the squad. A win against Sunderland is a must, we play Man Utd at Old Trafford afterwards, but as long as go out there with the right attitude and try to do the right things I'll be happy. If theres anything the last few weeks have taught me its to be circumspect.

Aston Villa 1-1 Middlesbrough

The reason for the delay in this write-up is partially lack of time, but mostly that I couldn't actually bring myself to relive this game in its aftermath, and have preferred instead to recollect it in tranquility. This is exactly the state we started the game in, despite the daily assurances of our players and manager in the run up to the match that it was one of the biggest of the season. In a way I think our non-show and Middlesbrough's gritty display was karma's reward for my near merciless ribbing of a smoggy supporting friend. I'll not make that mistake again.

Until Portsmouth away on Saturday we had scored in sixteen games in a row. To be honest we were lucky to score against Boro and could easily have conceded three more than we did, Mido enduring a particularly hapless performance in front of goal being the main cuplrit. One of my main, repititious criticisms of the Boro team is it lacks heart and strength, especially in the midfield. This and how Southgate fails to inspire his players at crucial times (to be fair both of these were fairly evident in the last two FA Cup games they played, one of which went through extra time and three team talks without rousing anything more than a whimper). These two assumptions were royally rammed down my throat last week as Boro kicked us out of the game early and then didn't let us into the match.

It was probably a bad time to play them, especially with George Boateng as willing as ever to prove his 'legend' credentials. However I still think a good twenty minutes at the start of that match would have seen a Villa win. So what went wrong for us? Well I'd say out of the eleven players who started only two played well: Bouma, Ashley and Laursen, but neither were near their best. Reo-Coker was ok but overran. The rest had games littered with basic individual errors and a distinct lack of urgency. The biggest culprit was Gareth Barry; wasteful in possession, positionally tactless and generally impotent. The last few weeks have seen some discontent from the fans with our midfield partnership, lets hope they resolve the issues apparent and Barry recaptures his pre-England form.

Last week was one of those horrible games where you travel for hours, look forward to it all week, spend loads of money you can barely afford and then are pretty disgracefully let down. Thankfully this rarely happens to us anymore, I haven't felt that bad leaving Villa Park since West Ham at home in O'Leary's last season (the only time we have lost after having a half-time lead at home in about 6 years). Our team is still developing and growing, and the squad's obvious lack of depth is beginning to tell: a few no-shows like this are bound to come over a season.

It is slightly irritating, though, to think that it is the winnable home games our team has choked on, rather than tougher fixtures away from home. Maybe that last minute Arsenal equaliser has rocked them more than we thought, and that would have been a massive win. Maybe, though, we just don't have that winning mentality that the top 5 have all displayed at some point in the season. Everton needed to win the other week, I think against Portsmouth, to stay fourth. They scored in the first minute. A win against Blackburn would have seen us fourth, we were average and rescued a point. Last night saw a worse display against a worse side, O'Neil still has some magic to work.

Aston Villa 4-1 Newcastle United

Yesterday saw the two contrasting sides of this Villa team. One was short on quality excitement and, unforgivably, effort. The other was emblematic of everything that is expected of a Martin O'Neill team; verve and power vanquishing a Newcastle side woefully lacking in spirit. The game, for me personally, was a game of firsts: first time I've seen a Villa player score a hatrick live, that hatrick being Carew's first for us, first time I've seen us score 4 in one half (and possibly ever, though my memories failing me a bit here), the first time Bouma has scored for us and the first time I thought Shaun Maloney could become a top Premiership player.

It was also the game in which Marlon Harewood established himself, in my opinion, as a Villa Park cult hero. The pure passion and commitment he so visibly demonstrated lifted the crowd and the rest of the team. He played some role in two of our goals but his overall impact was much more than that. Whether thumping his chest, bellowing at the Holte End or piling into team celebrations Marlon was at the heart of everything. He matched Reo-Coker's benchmark for enthusiasm and desire and suddenly it is quite easy to see how West Ham did so well a few seasons ago.

One player who would do well to follow his example is Stilian Petrov. I have tried to make excuses for Petrov before and he has played well for us at times this season but yesterday he was nothing short of disrgaceful. His only contributions to the game were negative and he seems to have mastered Lee Hendrie's talent for just not making it to challenges and bottling out of them. I should know because I've done exactly the same thing, but I haven't done it whilst being paid thousands upon thousands of pounds a week. He let the supporters down yesterday and they knew it and responded negatively. The reaction towards him by the end of the half was reminiscent of those given to Milan Baros towards the end of his Villa career. I hope Petrov turns it round, but I can't see it happening now. He cannot get into the centre of our midfield and can't perform consistently anywhere else. Without wanting to outright scapegoat him I think his performance affected Mellberg badly as well, and both were deservedly taken off at half time.

We could have been level despite these two poor performances at the break. Owen's headed goal represented Newcastle's only serious attack whilst we were unlucky not to get a penalty and Carew missed a good chance. Despite these opportunities, though, Newcastle got the better of us first half and would probably have backed themselves to keep it quiet for ten minutes at the start of the second and try to turn the crowd further against the home side. If they did they were alone, the fact we still created chances whilst playing fairly abysmally in the first half was a good indicator of what would happen if we upped our game in the second.

The second half saw the whole team match Reo-Coker's drive and spirit, and suddenly the game was transformed. There was an element of luck about two of our goals, and only Steven Carr knows why he slapped the ball right in front of the referee, but we routed Newcastle utterly. One major difference was the movement of our midfield. Barry and Reo were much more willing to break forward, even beyond the front two. This created more space and advanced attacking platforms. Also crucial was the introduction of Gardner at right back. So many times our full-backs discomfort on the ball has limited us severely. Yesterday he proved what a good all-round talent he is, marshalling Duff well down the left and almost taking the roof off the Holte End with two stunning volleys.

And of course Big John deserves his own paragraph. He was stifled in the first half but rampant in the second. When Carew gets a goal his confidence visibly lifts and suddenly he transforms into a skillful, dynamic, fast leader of the line. He becomes unplayable at times, just like Arsenal and Man City earlier this winter.

That second half performance could be the catalyst for the last 12 games of the season. We are close enough now to see whats at stake this year and whilst I still think we're short of challenging for a Champions League place, European football is there for the taking. Its just a shame there's a few weeks off now, though a week in Spain did us a world of good last year.

Aston Villa 1-1 Blackburn Rovers

This was the game which, in my eyes, proved what most Villa fans would have been thinking for a few weeks - without serious squad improvement we are nowhere near good enough to finish fourth. Blackburn, Bentley and Santa Cruz apart, a solid is unspectacular yet they contained us for large parts of the game. In fact without Ashley Young and Laursen we would have lost it. What disappointed me most about yesterday is that with Carson's penalty save we were given a lifeline and massive opportunity to kickstart our performance. Instead we just continued with a lethargic, limited style of play that you will never see at Anfield or White Hart Lane but has been worringly prevalent down the Villa recently.

The problems for us in this game clearly lay in midfield, which was changed twice during the course of the match. For all his industry, Stilian Petrov played few incisive passes and took up few telling advanced positions. Our captain lacked his usual composure on the ball, maybe the Capello effect or his injury is to blame but we really need Barry to capture his early season form. After his man of the match performance at Anfield Reo-Coker has a frustrating game; giving away a penalty amid countless other needless free-kicks. The formation Blackburn lined up with was designed to frustrate us like this and there was no need for a holding player in such a game, I think we would have benefitted from taking Reo-Coker off, though that would have left us more exposed at the back.

The one shining light in midfield was Ashley on the wing. Throughout the game he displayed his usual blend of awareness and craft, capped by a stunning free-kick to rescue a point which he almost turned into three with another stoppage time set-piece effort. Our best moment of the first half was also one of his free-kicks, superbly directed away from goal by Stephen Reid. Capello could not have failed to have been impressed by this display from Young: he carried the ball well, beat players, used it intelligently and, again, made incisive contributions to its outcome. He looked fully capable of making the step up. Sadly Gabby had his worst game of the season yesterday, and the second worst was the last time Capello turned up. Maybe he is tired, maybe teams are working us out, or maybe this is just a natural hiccup in an otherwise steady progression to stardom. Hopefully the emergence of Harewood as a genuine threat to his preferred starting role up front will give Gabby renewed zest.

Yesterday may have been the last time we see Olof Mellberg in a Villa shirt. We can only thank the Viking for his commitment to Villa during some hard years, in which he was one of the few players who deserved better. Nobody could deny him the chance to move to a genuine European giant like Juventus, and I hope he is a success over there, if he does leave in the next few days. Who could forget his anti-Blues rants, even if they did inspire the enemy. I get the feeling I just don't like them either Olof, good luck and thank you. Thankfully we have a ready made Scandinavian defensive hero replacement in Martin Laursen, imagine if both had played together for the last few years. Yesterday he made a saving tackle of such precision and grace it was breathtaking. Santa Cruz was dangerous for Blackburn and gave both our centre-backs problems, but Laursen still won pretty much everything in the air.

Missing this chance to move up into fourth was disappointing, but we must improve in strength and depth if we are to ever be serious challengers to the Champions League and a few results like this along the way are a healthy reminder of where we are. O'Neill cannot keep performing miracles and surely we will boost the squad before the end of this transfer window. Otherwise performances like this may become the norm rather than the exception for this side.

Aston Villa 3-1 Reading

Since the Spurs game I've actually been to three football matches. The next day I saw Cheltenham Town beat fellow strugglers Port Vale 1-0 at Whaddon Rd, which has started a run of 3 consecutive victories and raised them outside the relegation zone. I might try to get some pictures of Whaddon Road on here, I think its a great little ground. Then I saw our FA Cup defeat to Manchester United. I can now look at back at that and be pleased generally with our performance - United are in top form and the game was close. I think it was evidence that we are getting there, though comparing the substitutes they brought on (Rooney, Hargreaves and maybe Nani? A combined cost of over £50 million) with ours (Luke Moore, Maloney and Gardner at a combined cost of £1 million) indicates the gap is still vast in some respects.

And finally came last weekend's entertaining win over Reading. The manner of it was not emphatic, but generally quite convincing and though Reading could point to some key decisions going against them I felt we were worthy of the two-goal margin. Again we were largely carried by the same names who keep dominating this blog, but a new one can now be officially added as Moustapha Salifou was eventually sent on at the crowd's continued request. After the laudatory substitutions of Gabby, Ashley and Carew, all walking across the entire pitch to rapturous standing ovations in a footballing equivalent of multiple bows from an actor at a theatre, it was actually Salifou who Harper left for dead for Reading's consolation goal, but you can't blame him too much for that.

One aspect of our play that seems to have attracted a lot of media attention has been our success from set pieces, apparently half of our goals have come from them. Reading's depleted defence was simply unable to cope with our aerial threat. After Carew's suspiciously off-side looking opener, followed by a bizarre celebration of booting the ball into the Witton Lane Stand, Martin Laursen launched a one-man assault on a series of corner kicks; scoring, having one saved and missing another header. Laursen's signed a contract now for the next two and a half years and, obviously, we're all delighted. It's good to see him pay back the club for the loyalty we showed him during his troubled injury spells and I seriously rate him as amongst the best in the league, possibly second behind Rio Ferdinand.

Unusually there was a change in the team line-up this week; Craig Gardner slotting in for an ill Olof Mellberg. I think this change benefitted us as Craig is much more comfortable and assured in possession than the Viking and was solid in defence. We actually threatened down both flanks with Petrov joining Gardner with an effective performance. Both were outshone by the jinking Young on the left but there was more balance about the side, although Petrov provides less genuine width.

In fact, all of our players performed quite effectively, with few real errors and general fluency. The team seems to be really confident at the moment, understandably, but also functions as a unit. A home win against a bottom half team is never going to set the world alight but these are games which we have struggled with in the past, and at Villa Park we can only too happily accept such an regulatory atmosphere.

From the Reading line-up I'd single out De La Cruz and Doyle as their best performers. Ulysses was all over Gabby for much of the match, much to the crowd's annoyance, but Uriah Rennie let him carry on and all credit to him for putting in such a robust display on his return here. Gabby was frustrated for much of the afternoon and his pace only really told in the last 10 minutes, during which time he assisted Big John's second. Doyle just looks to have that knack of immediately reading the game, his awareness and passing are good and, without wanting to be disrespectful to Reading, he looks to be one of their players who could raise his game to a higher level in a better team.

I mentioned Rennie earlier and now comes my referee dedicated paragraph. The last few games I felt were officiated well, but Rennie proved on Saturday that he isn't fit to take charge of Premiership games. Within the first five minutes he had made three bizarre decisions, all against us funnily enough, and got the crowd on his back. There wasn't anything for him to deal with of note, apart from deciding whether to punish Hanneman's particularly reckless lunge on Gabby with a yellow or red, yet even in a game with little incident he managed to display worrying levels of ineptitude. I hope for the football supporter's of this country's sake that he is relegated to the 4th offical berth (at least) in the near future.

But despite being poor Rennie didn't really affect the match much. A lot of happy Villans left the ground on Saturday evening in the knowledge that we are now serious candidates for a possible 4th place finish. I think that we may fall just short but if we can keep all our key players fit for most of the games why not dream? Unfortunately that won't be the case for the match tomorrow night at Anfield where Barry and Carew are serious doubts, which will have a huge affect on our team. However lets see this game as an opportunity to go and prove that we are capable of breaking this top-4 myth and show the rest of the country what we have believed for over a year - Villa are on the up.

Aston Villa 2-1 Tottenham Hotspur

Another great win and suddenly all the media talk of another mid-season slump has disappeared. In reality no Villa supporter would have held that view, we have been playing well without winning, but it is always good to see a victory at Villa Park. It was, though, a result that was seriously threatened when Spurs took advantage of a slack second half spell to equalise through the previously anonymous Jermain Defoe, after which Laursen's winner was greatly important.

The biggest worry with us at the moment is failing to decisively finish games when we're on top, and the biggest culprit today, unfortunately, was Luke Moore. After the Derby County match I wrote of him that "It is not that he is playing particularly badly, or particularly lazily, but there is a concerning air of indifference in his play." Yesterday only the indifference wasn't true, he seemed gutted. When he contrived to miss exactly the chance strikers love when things aren't going their way he was visibly affected. Its hard to exactly convey the precise emotion of the moment but a sigh went round the whole of Villa Park, as if nearly 40'000 people suddenly saw his Villa career evaporating before them, and he knew it. Its a shame that we seem to be about to lose a Holte End hero, but if we're to get where we all want to be there will inevitably be casualties.

This apart yesterday's game was, I though, hugely enjoyable. It wasn't the classic some people maybe expected after some eye-catching Christmas scorefests, but both teams played some attractive football. Spurs' main problem was that virtually all of theirs ended when they reached the final third, whilst their defence struggled to cope with our more direct attacking threat. Some media outlets have chosen to use the fact we scored from two set-pieces as evidence only of Spurs poor defending, and ignored the fact that, but for some indecisive attacking, we could have won far more comfortably. Also interesting that Alan Hansen is so assured and convinced by Spurs' singular ability to break into the top four, though they haven't for over two decades and, for all the decoration of Berbatov, Keane and Lennon, don't do the basics right.

The only Spurs players who really stood out were Berbatov, Robinson and Huddlestone. The first for being so surly and cynical, at one point deliberately studding Laursen in mid-air with a trailing leg and continualy making a back for him. Robinson for his flapping at crosses and good-hearted response to some chants Harry Redknapp would have balked at. Redknapp should take note of his reaction and not act like such a spoilt child next time someone shouts at him. Huddlestone, I thought, improved Spurs a lot and I'm not quite sure how the impotent combination of Jenas and Zokora/Prince-Boateng has kept him out of this side.

Martin Laursen is developing into a cult hero at Villa Park, even drawing comparisons with the legendary Paul McGrath, and yesterday proved why. Not content with limiting Berbatov to a periphery role, he then scores a vital winner and, along with Nigel Reo-Coker, throws his shirt into the Holte End after the final whistle. Both of them had impressive games, along with the other usual suspects - Barry, Young and Gabby. One other player I would give a special mention to is Curtis Davies. There are few teams who pose such an attacking threat as this Spurs side and he was notably solid at the back. It seems as if he has taken the shirt off Zat Knight, and I doubt many Villans will be too gutted.

Despite the protestations of Poyet and Ramos after the match I think we were value for this win, a crucial one in many respects. Hopefully we'll really kick-start the new year against Man Utd next week, but to be honest I'm not too hopeful - experience has taught me otherwise.

Aston Villa 1-1 Man City

In my festive errancy I couldn't quite get the time to write a review for this one. Sorry to any regular readers, though I'm not quite pompous enough to think that anyone was really that bothered.

John Carew was great though.

Aston Villa 1-3 Portsmouth

Another home defeat, but a massively different reaction; gone are the acceptance and hope from last week. This is what defeats are supposed to feel like. It says something of our season so far that I had actually forgotten how it feels to see us perform so lethargically and unimaginatively, and lose so deservedly, as we did Saturday morning. In fact the last time I left Villa Park with such a depressed, empty feeling was at the back end of O'Leary's last season when we lost to Man City. Yesterday couldn't quite match the utter disaffection of that summer evening, but it really was a poor all-round display from us.

Or at least the 55 minutes or so I saw were, a combination of work on Friday, a ridiculous kick-off time and an inneffective phone alarm meant I only arrived at New Street after 1 o'clock. According to my Dad all I missed was a sloppy own goal, a small amount of Harry Redknapp baiting and some typically pompous yet mistake-ridden refereeing from Mike Riley. What I certainly didn't miss was the kind of exciting, attacking verve our young guns have normally provided this season.

An supporter even more positive than myself would argue that apart from two fantastic long range efforts and a fortunate own goal Portsmouth barely troubled our goal until the last ten or so minutes of the match, when we were only playing two defenders. This claret and blue tinted appraisal, however, ignores the fact that generally Portsmouth outpassed us in midfield and comfortably dealt with the continual aerial barrage we sent down. John Carew was one of the few Villa players who looked reasonably in form; Laursen and Gabby being the other two, but he found it hard against Campbell and Distin, two shrewd signings you have to give Redknapp credit for.

The good work from our strikers was, though, largely isolated as the midfield failed to function against their athletic counterparts in blue. Barry has generally been one of our best performers this season but it just didn't happen for him yesteday. Couple this with a strangely subdued performance from Reo-Coker and it is obvious where the teams problems stemmed from. Good teams will exploit our lack of width on the right and Gardner struggled to make any impression until he came inside to his preferred position. Berger came off the bench yesterday but the spark he found at the back end of last season has gone out again, I don't want to write him off but it looks like the end of his career at Villa Park to me, all three of his substitute appearances have been poor. There was a great chance on Saturday after a crunching tackle from Gardner but Patrick failed to execute a simple 10 yard pass through to Gabby, a basic error which could have made all the difference. It is hard to criticise Young as he looked bright on the ball yesterday, we just did not create enough space for him. Again here Redknapp must be applauded for blending craft, strength and speed to good effect.

This is the last time in this blog, however, that Redknapp's behavious will be applauded. I have seen a lot of column inches devoted to the abuse that Redknapp recieved and his subsequent damning of the Villa Park crowd. Less notable, though, has been any discussion of Redknapp's own actions immediately before the scenes he closely describes. Following a small confrontation between some players from both sides Redknapp, ansering a chant of "Have you paid the referee?", gestured at the referee and then made a two-fingered gesture towards the Holte End. This went down predictably badly but the fans were further inflamed by the three fingers he held up towards the Trinity Road Stand. Now I normally take reaction from players to the crowd in good humour, if you can't take it don't dish it out (a phrase more applicable to Reknapp than our fans anyway), but I think managers should uphold higher standards of dignity. The quite predictable response from the crowd came in chants about jail, bribes and showers.

Redknapp's behaviour would have been more acceptable, especially considering the week he's had, if his post-match comments hadn't been so hypocritical. From what I gather he wasn't brought up to abuse people in front of his children, but was brought up to aggravate 35'000 people with offensive gestures, and comparing his experiences at Villa Park with those as a child in the 1950's seems to be fairly erroneous, or frankly ridiculous, as well. Essentially I think Redknapp is embarrassed about his childish reaction to what was fairly mild ribbing, which then became more vicious, and has chosen to deflect attention from this onto some of our fans behaving as most around the country would have. I can think of a number of examples where players and managers have had far worse insults than the one he reacted to, and then bleated about to all who would listen.

I suppose what makes Redknapp's barbs all the more antagonising is the fact that his team has just come to Villa Park and beaten us convincingly. Villa fans may want to talk about his behaviour, or the sometimes bizarre decision making displayed by Riley, but we were soundly beaten yesterday and deservingly so. Next week's trip up to Sunderland is now even more important. We really need to get back to winning ways and try to regain some of the momentum we had before the Arsenal match going into the Christmas period.

Aston Villa 1-2 Arsenal

I've mulled over this game and its various ramifications for a few days now, but I am still mainly consumed by the first two reactions I, and most other attending Villa fans, had to this match. Firstly, by how obscenely talented and well oiled is the present Arsenal team. And secondly, by how promising the future looks for us. Although on Saturday there was the usual passion during the game; joy, stunned silence, anger, more anger, and finally pride, the rousing second half performance of our team was backed by a generally vociferous and quite optimistic support. Of course we were gutted to lose, and I still think we were slightly unlucky to do so, but loss is an inevitable outcome of sport and if there is any good way to lose a game, surely its to one of the best teams seen at Villa Park in living memory. Manchester United were dangerous coming forward a few weeks ago, but Arsenal are just on a different level, a depressing yet enjoyable team to watch end a winning streak.

However I normally focus on the Villa positives from these games, so lets go through them again. Firstly we scored against a top team, and genuinely competed with them for sections of the match. In the second half we were so dominant that Arsenal were reduced to hoofing the ball indiscriminately and barely mustered an attack. There are some good signs from some great young players in our team, and some of the experienced ones are really starting to hit form. The injury to one of them, Stilian Petrov, was the key turning point of the match: for 15 minutes afterwards Barry went into his shell, they fully took control and two goals were, eventually, enough to see the points go back to North London. Another resurgent player is Big John Carew. There was a period in the second half when he really hit top form and everything was sticking to him. It wasn't as pretty as Arsenal's effortless control and movement in the first half, but their defence found it almost as difficult to cope with.

And really its hard to say a great deal more than this, without pondering the impact Reo-Coker may have had, or discuss Gabby's surly response to being shunted out onto the wing. The referee wasn't too bad, despite the now repetitive 'top-4' brand of pressure he was under, the fans of both sides were good but not great (although the continuing din of the second half rendition of "Martin O'Neill's ClaretandBlueArmy was singularly impressive), and the overall conclusion for both sets of fans was probably a happy one. They could well win the league, and even if they don't their fans get to watch that football every week, and we are now establishing ourselves as an up and coming force. Improved balance in the team, and a little more class or development could see us win games like this.

Next Saturday we're back in our own league with Portsmouth at home. Despite the ugly looking train times and probable frost I'm looking forward to this game immensely: two exciting teams, a near full-house already, and the chance to try and convert my two younger cousins into Villans fans. The dynasty starts here.