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We plunge into the bottom three!


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This is unfamiliar territory for us. We are in the relegation zone and are the lowest placed of the four West Midlands teams who find themselves in the bottom six. Our bright future seems much further away now than it did at the end of last season when we had finished sixth from the top for the third successive season and had made two Wembley appearances. How can a team plunge as low as it has done so soon and can we put things right in time?

A point gained at Chelsea appears to have proven to be a false dawn as we followed it up with three dropped points against a Sunderland team who by winning secured a rare double over us. They are used to relegation battles and we are not. They are used to occupying the bottom half of the table whilst we have grown accustomed to life in the top half of the table that they now occupy. How quickly things can change.

We finished what had been a first half of limited shots on goal strongly and Heskey spurned two chances in the last 5 minutes of the half that could have seen us two goals to the good at half time with the points in the bag. But, Sunderland were the team that got most out of the break and it was they who were spurred into greater action and who had the better of the second period as we failed to make any changes to our tactics or starting eleven that might have loosened their grip on the game before they eventually secured a crucial winner with just ten minutes of the ninety left.

This season is now beginning to have the feel of previous relegation seasons such as 1986/87. We have now lost 3 of our last 4 home games having previously been undefeated at Villa Park. Clean sheets for us have recently become as rare for our defence as trophies are at Small Heath. I had thought relegation battles would now be things of the past but it now looks likely we may face a real threat to our status for much of the season and that has not really happened since 1994/95 when relegation remained a possibility until the last game of the season.

Is the team we have up for the fight and did it really need major surgery or just tinkering with? Is Randy prepared to spend to secure our status or to risk losing it and millions by keeping the purse strings tight (snatching Keane from our local rivals today would be a start)? Is our current manager able to motivate the players we have available to produce something like the performances we know they are capable of and that they demonstrated they can still give in our previous game over what is left of this season? Will the club give GH the time and backing he anticipated getting or look to the likes of Big Sam or Martin Jol for a potential quick fix? These questions will be answered over the coming weeks and months. Our proud status in the top flight will depend on the answers.

My player ratings from a game that has left us facing a long hard relegation battle and having proved that ten men are not always that hard to beat are:

Brad Friedel – 6 – Did not have a lot to do but when called upon did what was necessary with a minimum of fuss.

Carlos Cuellar - 5 – One of two players who was press ganged into playing out of position last night. Got into some decent positions to cross in the first half but turned the ball back for others to take that responsibility on each occasion. He showed last season that full back is not a natural position for him but one he can cover in an emergency where defence is our primary if not sole objective. He is unlucky to find himself out of the central defence again after some good performances there this season as was Lichaj not to get a game against Sunderland at home who could not have been expected to have asked our full backs the same defensive questions so often as might Chelsea away from home. Carlos misjudged a cross in the second minute that Malbranque who was behind him headed wide but he did well to deflect a goal bound Malbranque shot wide for a second half corner.

Richard Dunne – 5 – Like Collins found Bent and his forward partners a handful. Some second half distribution problems and for some reason as a player who has not scored for a year again found himself pushed up front to search for an equaliser that never looked likely to come from this source if from any. Not as assured as he was against Chelsea.

James Collins – 5 – Brushed off by Bent on 52 minutes but he did well to get in position to clear his shot off the line. Missed what seemed an opportunity to try to deflect their winner off target as it flew past his leg and into the corner of the net past a static Friedel. Not at his best and his lack of confidence is impacting on his game.

Ciaran Clark - 5 – He is a better central defender and central midfield player than he is a full back.

Stewart Downing – 6 – Not at his most influential best last night. He hit a couple of decent crosses but be needs to be more involved and effective because when he, Marc and Ash are not at their best nor are we.

Stiliyan Petrov – 4 – Some way off his best and at times off the pace last night which suggested he needed a rest more than Bannan did on his return to first team duty.

Nigel Reo Coker – 7 – Strong in the middle, worked hard, produced some decent runs forward albeit without an end product and was unwilling to be brushed aside. Hit a good through ball on 19 minutes which would have presented Ashley Young with a good scoring opportunity had the ball not just ran past him.

Ashley Young - 6 – Too deep late in the game when we were looking to get a point and throwing the likes of Dunne, Collins and at the death Friedel up front to leave what is arguably our most potent offensive weapon to cover at the back and to take free kicks from inside his own half was quite surreal at a time when we were searching for an equaliser that might have produced a point that could have proved so valuable at the end of this season. Hit a decent and for us rare shot on goal that was on target and forced a save on 57 minutes. Needs to revert to the wing and be told that he needs to stay up front where he can do some damage as you rarely present a goal threat in your own half.

Gabby Agbonlahor – 4 – Like a fish out of water playing out wide and whilst this may have worked at Chelsea it did not last night and needed changing when it became clear he was making no real impression on the game and particularly after we had lost Emile with 22 minutes and stoppage time still remaining. Failed to make his presence felt and seemed less than happy to find himself again occupying a role he was wasted in.

Emile Heskey – 7 – MOTM - Exceptional work outside the box and two strong forward runs were only stopped by challenges that gained yellow cards for Richardson and Zenden. Sent off on 68 minutes for pushing a hand into the face of Henderson who was goading him aggressively in an attempt to push him away as the full letter of the law was applied following an on pitch debate involving the referee, a linesman and the fourth official to achieve what was a sending off by committee. On 40 minutes Downing having taken a ball off Zenden who was trying to play it out for a goal kick hit a great cross that found him 3 yards out and with the goal at his mercy but he managed to scoop the ball onto the crossbar rather than push it into the net to win the crossbar challenge but to in doing so miss the opportunity to hit the crucial opening goal. Four minutes later he got on the end of a good Ashley Young cross but his header went wide when again a goal looked likely albeit this time the chance was more difficult than had been the first although it was still a clear scoring opportunity once he had got into position to make a good connection on the ball. So despite missing one great and one very good scoring opportunity and then giving the officials an opportunity to bring us down to ten men his performance was still one of the best he has produced for us and for me merits the MOTM award.

Substitutes:

Barry Bannan – Replaced Reo on 88 minutes. Not on long enough to rate but like Albrighton provided us with some late energy.

Marc Albrighton – Replaced Petrov in what was a double substitution. Not on long enough to rate but should have been.

Stay up the Villa!

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