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.