O'Neill looks for 'help' to bolster Villa challenge
Aston Villa 2 West Bromwich 1
Given that even Liverpool, in front for six weeks now, still cannot build a convincing case to be title favourites, the notion that Villa, unbeaten in nine matches, might not be good enough for the top four seems faintly ludicrous.
Yet their manager, Martin O'Neill, was insisting even from third place on Saturday evening that his squad "will need help" if their challenge to the established order in the Premier League is to be sustained.
O'Neill is inclined to be canny in these matters, aware that if he keeps expectations low he is more likely to exceed them. But others concur with his view, among them the manager of the relegation favourites beaten by his team on Saturday. Despite his own side coming up short, West Bromwich Albion's Tony Mowbray reckons that Villa, essentially, should not take much stopping.
"If you look at their game at Hull recently [which would have finished in stalemate but for a late Hull own goal], Hull never really attacked them," he said. "They played one up front and didn't really have a go. They recognised Villa's strengths as being counter-attacking and if you do that, Villa haven't got anywhere to go."
Neither does he have a particularly high opinion of Gabriel Agbonlahor, the budding England striker O'Neill describes as "priceless".
"Agbonlahor's pace gets him away and he scores but he's not a great creator of chances," Mowbray said. "If you restrict the space available, then you nullify his threat."
The trouble is that whereas Hull succeeded, for 88 minutes at any rate, in subduing Villa's game, not only did Albion fail to keep them at bay in the prescribed fashion, they also allowed Agbonlahor, with a little help from Scott Carson, to score the winning goal.
Little wonder, then, that Mowbray – determined not to abandon his commitment to an attack-minded pass-and-move style – finds himself under fire again for refusing to compromise. And the criticism is clearly beginning to annoy him.
"The world is full of experts who tell you how to do your job," he said. "Good luck to them. But it doesn't matter at the moment [what they think]. I'm the one making the decisions."
Mowbray is right to point out that Albion, even after eight weeks at the bottom, remain only three points from safety, but the longer his principled stance fails to produce results – this was his eighth consecutive away defeat – the more he tests the patience of his employers, particularly since he admits freely that he does not have the players to make his tactics work.
"In the end, it comes down to the quality of footballers," he said, with reference not to his accident-prone goalkeeper, whose mistake in allowing Agbonlahor's weak shot to squeeze under his body ultimately proved decisive. Otherwise, James Morrison's strike four minutes into the second half would have cancelled out Curtis Davies' header against his former club and left things all square.
"I hope to bring in another centre-forward in a week or two,"" Mowbray said. "I need to improve the quality in that area of the pitch. I think the fact that our biggest threat today came from a 20-year-old [Arsenal's Jay Simpson] on loan making his Premier League debut tells you where we are at the moment." O'Neill's transfer window focus is similarly on finding a striker. "Since John Carew was injured we have had to adapt, and the way we have been playing has actually suited us quite well," he said. "But that is not to say that we have hit upon some sort of masterplan to carry us through.
"We have been able to win some tough games lately because a couple of people have come up big for us, Agbonlahor among them. He is really priceless to us. He and names such as Ashley Young and Gareth Barry are big players for us.
"But were we to lose a couple of them it would be like Liverpool losing [Steven] Gerrard and [Fernando] Torres. So for us to maintain any kind of momentum in the Premier League we will need some help. We need to be better equipped in terms of more players."
Goals: Davies (19) 1-0; Carson (og 41) 2-0; Morrison (49) 2-1.
Aston Villa (4-1-4-1): Friedel; Reo-Coker, Davies, Laursen, L Young; Petrov; Milner, Sidwell (Cuellar, 86), Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor. Substitutes not used: Harewood, Guzan (gk), Delfouneso, Knight, Shorey, Gardner.
West Bromwich Albion (4-4-2): Carson; Hoefkens, Barnett, Olsson, Robinson; Morrison (Brunt, 65), Greening, Koren, Valero (Kim, 77); Moore (Bednar, h-t), Simpson. Substitutes not used: Kiely (gk), Cech, Beattie, Donk.
Referee: S Bennett (Kent).
Booked: Aston Villa Laursen. West Bromwich Bednar.
Man of the match: A Young.