A lot has happened since I last typed my thoughts down on this blog. Firstly Leicester reminded us that whatever divison they are in and whatever form we're in, we won't beat them at Villa Park. Then on a slightly surreal Monday night Spurs completed the most predictable 3-goal comeback I have ever seen. But I wasn't at either of those games so I won't dwell on them too much, apart from to say that those two results made Saturday's visit of West Ham fairly crucial. Thankfully we continued our impressive league form at Villa Park, and Steve McClaren saw a whole host of eye-catching, English performances.
There was quite a patriotic feel to Saturday all-round as first a squadron of troops recently returned from Basra marched round the pitch. They were all massive Villa fans and ended by walking towards the Holte End, to a rapturous standing ovation, and filing into a section of it at the front. Got to give credit to the club for this gesture, and the West Ham fans who gave them a great reception. At the same time England were beating Australia and 'Swing Low...' started up later on in the Holte. I was surprised by this but it was also strangely fitting.
The first thirty-five or so minutes of this game were explosive and full of incident. Leading the charge for Villa were our young attacking trio; Luke Moore, Gabby and Ashley Young, who may have played himself into an England Cap. There were at least four occasions when we passed the ball along the six-yard box without scoring, and countless other times where we disected West Ham's defence. In the end, though, it was Craig Gardner who blasted in the winner from a free-kick. Gardner is still learning the game and sometimes shows his naivety but his attitude and natural technique are promising. He's coping with being played out of position as well and looks like a real prospect. He strikes me as an old-fashioned footballer; gritty, competitive, and unpretentious.
West Ham played their part though and threatened on a few occasions through counterattacks which seemed to fizzle out as they reached the final third. Again Martin Laursen was out-standing in defence and Zat Knight turned in another solid performance. The one effort of any note was from Camara's hand, though Etherington almost punished Mellberg for a weak back-pass. The visitors were limited, though, by their midfields pre-occupance with trying to get Nigel Reo-Coker into the referee's notebook than unlock our defence. I'm surprised Noble didn't start and Bowyer was inneffectual as well as petulant.
Then the game just seemed to dig its heels in. Luke Moore stopped linking the play and creating space, Gabby couldn't get a run at their defence and our midfield dropped off. West Ham were allowed a lot more of the ball and more territory but offered very little threat and looked limited. This pattern continued through the second half, despite the growing wariness of the home support, until Gareth Barry decided to impose himself on the midfield and Shaun Maloney was introduced. Barry was given Man of the Match but in all honesty it was one of the quietest home games he has had in two years. Laursen and Young were probably more deserving of the award.
I felt sorry for Maloney when he came on and spent twenty minutes chasing the ball around. When he finally got possession, though, he delighted the crowd and helped close out the game with a prolonged demonstration of how to annoy a trailing team by the corner flag. With Gabby as an equally determined side-kick wee Shauny had defenders' limbs flailing around after him as he won a number of throw-ins and corners. There was still time, however, for the hapless Carlton Cole (accurately nicknamed Can't Control) to glance another headed chance wide.
Overall we were worth the victory in this match and never really looked like conceding. In just under two weeks time now we play Manchester United at home, though and we won't be able to play like we have in the last two home matches and win. However I'm confident going into that game; United have got some injury problems and I'm looking forward to seeing Young take on Gary Neville down that flank. And its about time we bloody beat them.