Belfast Telegraph

Milner stars in Aston Villa's perfect start

By Phil Shaw

Aston Villa 3 West Ham United 0: A storm of biblical proportions provided the perfect backdrop for the second coming of Kevin MacDonald.

In his first stint as a caretaker manager in the Premier League, with Leicester 15 years ago, the Scot gleaned one point from three games. This time, in his first match as Martin O'Neill's temporary successor, Aston Villa delivered a thumping victory.

The goals may have come from Stewart Downing, Stiliyan Petrov and James Milner – with unwitting assistance from Robert Green on the early, confidence-boosting breakthrough – but the most potent symbol of MacDonald's perpetual-motion side was winger Marc Albrighton. The 20-year-old from Tamworth was outstanding on his first League start, tormenting the visiting full-backs and giving Avram Grant food for thought on his own debut as West Ham manager.

MacDonald was almost alone in not feeling that Villa had won at a canter, suggesting he might join the consensus only after he had watched the DVD. "It was quite nerve-wracking at times, especially at the start of the second half," he said. "But the players turned it round and deserved their win." Asked whether the result had made him want the job more, he replied: "It can only get worse. Maybe I should retire now."

Grant argued, justifiably, that Downing had been offside for his goal, and claimed Green was "not at fault" before summing up West Ham's display bluntly: "They were better than us."

If Green hoped a fresh campaign would be accompanied by a clean slate after his costly fumble for England against the USA in the World Cup, he was swiftly disabused. The pre-match talk had centred on what sort of reception awaited the Manchester City-bound Milner, whose name was greeted by more cheers than jeers, but the Villa crowd were not about to pass up an opportunity to unsettle an opposing goalkeeper.

Even before the first goal, Green had punched one cross high into the air and had to jump again to turn the dropping ball over. After an under-hit back pass by James Tomkins let in John Carew in the 10th minute, Green did well to get a foot on the ball, which Tomkins then toe-ended against a post. Five minutes later, however, Green elected to punch, rather than catch, Ashley Young's cross even though there was no Villa player within yards. The ball flew to Albrighton, one of five players in the Villa 18 developed by MacDonald, and although his shot drew a one-handed parry from Green, Downing was on hand to side-foot home the loose ball.

Villa doubled their advantage before half-time. Albrighton was again involved, supplying Young, whose cross picked out a well-timed run by Petrov. The Bulgarian's glancing header left Green helpless; last season he scored a solitary goal, in the FA Cup, and seldom, if ever, made such runs.

The Holte End now chanted "Kevin, give us a wave". More significantly, given the events of the previous five days, a chorus of "There's only one Randy Lerner" spread around the stadium. Villa's sense of well-being was enhanced when Brad Friedel saved athletically from Luis Boa Morte.

West Ham could scarcely play any worse in the second half, which began in a ferocious downpour, and Grant's decision to replace Boa Morte and Radoslav Kovac said much for his dissatisfaction. With the newcomer from Portsmouth, Frédéric Piquionne, alongside Carlton Cole, they at last ventured forward, though not before Downing curled a long-range free-kick against their bar, one of four occasions on which Villa hit the woodwork.

Julien Faubert should have halved the deficit, sidefooting wide. Instead of gaining a foothold, West Ham conceded a third goal, with Albrighton once more the provider. Jinking past poor Tomkins, he calmly cut the ball back to Milner, whose left-footed shot from the 18-yard line compounded Green's despair and MacDonald's satisfaction.

Attendance: 36,604

Referee: Mike Dean

Man of the match: Albrighton

Source: Independent

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