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.