Aston Villa rue missed opportunity as Stoke City earn point
01 March 2009 06:41
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It is slightly ironic that Martin O'Neill, someone for whom time is measured only in approximates, should see his side torpedoed by two goals of impeccable punctuality, scored by Stoke in the 88th and 91st minute of a match Aston Villa had totally dominated. And all on O'Neill's 57th birthday. Talk about timing.
So bad is O'Neill's timekeeping that he sets his watch fifteen minutes fast, and how he must have wished that his watch's second hand reflected reality. He would have been back in the dressing-room. Instead he had to watch Glenn Whelan lash his late equaliser past Brad Friedel after Ryan Shawcross had headed home three minutes earlier.
O'Neill had been hoping for justification that his decision to tank the Uefa Cup last week was the right one. His attempts to appease disgruntled fans who spent thousands on the trip by offering them a free supper at the end of the season has done some good, but he knew that no amount of free nosh would make up for this deafeat. This was not quite the vindication he will have wanted, but least Arsenal are still six points adrift.
"We are pretty devastated," O'Neill said, admitting the gap is of little consolation. "We were in total control of the game."
Indeed, so little action did the Villa half see in the opening 45 minutes that three pigeons allowed themselves the luxury of having a feed in front of the Holte End penalty area. Stoke, quite content to leave ten men behind the ball every time Villa were in possession, looked to stymie Villa on the break.
Devoid of their default reliance on the counter-attack, Villa pushed even their defence forward, flooding the Stoke area. Zat Knight came close with a header, after Agbonlahor missed what seemed a simple chance when his eye was drawn at the critical moment by Ibrahima Sonko hurtling towards him.
Stoke, meanwhile, were doing a passable impression of NASA Mission Control, launching any ball that came their way skywards, and getting on the wick of their own support in the process, who started to jeer.
Sticks and stones, Stoke might have said. While words didn't hurt them, Stiliyan Petrov did, on the stroke of half time, when he spanked a powerful effort past Thomas Sorensen.
Relegation threatening, Stoke could not sit back any longer. But, with conditions now favourable, Villa extended their lead when John Carew, on for Heskey, got an instinctive foot on a cross from Petrov, sending the ball looping over Stoke's reserve goalkeeper Steve Simonsen. A super goal.
But Stoke rallied from nowhere. Ricardo Fuller had already gone close, scuppered by Luke Young. Stoke cried foul, but replays revealed an exquisite tackle. Whelan hit a post. Then Shawcross headed past Friedel. Finally, as two minutes of added time were announced, Whelan sent the ball thudding into the Villa net with flat-line finality, his shot from the edge of the area as quick as a bullet. The silence over the Villa contingent hung every bit as acrid as cordite.