Tuesday, 5 May 2009

35: Aston Villa 1 - 0 Hull City - 04/05/2009

It's getting crazy now. Another 1-0 defeat thanks to another offside goal (albeit more borderline than the one which Sunderland got just over a fortnight ago) and Hull City don't take another opportunity to pull away from the spectre of relegation.

With all those results going the way of the Tigers over the weekend, and the knowledge that Aston Villa were going through a severely dodgy spell of results but had their European spot sewn up and boxed off, it was such a good chance. So good. You could almost touch the prospect of safety.

And we didn't take it.

We didn't really look close.

That's not casting any cruel or unflattering aspersions on City's players. They tried. But we aren't good enough, and more obvious than ever is it that if we do stay up, it'll because of the bad attitude of the teams below us, rather than any quality on our part.

Some tweaks to the team were very welcome when they buzzed on to the mobile phones of the Tiger Nation pre-match - Daniel Cousin was, at last, starting a game again. We had a goalscorer on the pitch. Ian Ashbee was back, not unexpectedly, after his suspension. Andy Dawson was there to add solidity to the defence again after missing the Liverpool game with a training injury. Richard Garcia was back in midfield after being surprisingly missing for the last three weeks.

City got underway before a throaty away support, enjoying an exceptional view from the side of the wonderful Villa Park arena that remains vastly underrated as a ground because it doesn't host a 'top four' team. Things were bright from the off when Kevin Kilbane launched a long throw with which Zat Knight's clearing header only partially dealt, and Ashbee thundered a low volley just a yard or so wide.

This was Ashbee's last contribution. Tragically, and chillingly, he stayed down when going into a legitimate 50-50 challenge with James Milner. No foul was committed by either, and both were hurt, but while Milner managed to get some life back into his leg and continue, Ashbee was hobbling beyond even superficial repair and, a minute after returning to the action, he was replaced by Dean Marney.

This was a hefty blow for City; not just because Ashbee's brand of leadership is so crucial to a cause such as this, but also because Marney, while the only clear replacement available on the bench, is still lacking any type of confidence whatsoever. The unforgiving Tiger Nation don't tend to treat confidence players with sympathy, despite the obvious counter-productivity of barracking, but Marney soon had the crowd on his back when his first pass was negative, and especially when a clearance fell to his left boot at 20 yards from goal and he only made contact with fresh air. Marney's abilities are stifled by his own self-doubt, and this makes him as useful on the ball as a ratter like Ashbee is, but without anything like the extra virtues the skipper does bring to the team.

Play continues, and City are doing okay. Cousin aims a volley too high and Geovanni miskicks a reasonable opportunity at the far post from Kilbane's delivery. In between, Michael Turner concedes a free kick and Milner, by some distance the best performer on the field, whips a curler around the wall which Boaz Myhill, back at the club that let him go to a bottom division City for peppercorns six seasons ago, tips nicely over the bar.

Villa broke the deadlock, unexpectedly but perhaps not undeservedly, when George Boateng - also on old territory - mislaid the ball near the opposition box and allowed Gareth Barry to send the nimble Ashley Young on a mission down the left. His inside ball was met - just - the instep of John Carew whose touch was minimal but nonetheless enough to divert the ball past Myhill.

Television replays were inconclusive. You could probably split the number of people who thought it onside and who thought it not, for either team, right down the middle.

City try to rally. Geovanni gets everyone excited when he lines up a 30-yard free kick. Perhaps the excitement is rather premature, as he proceeds to perform a horrid slice of the ball not seen in a City game since Neil Aspin struck the corner flag when playing for Leeds United at Boothferry Park in early 1988. Geovanni could at least say his chance was more difficult - Aspin was in the penalty area when his madness occurred - but for a player of such talent, of such capability for the brilliant, to commit an act of such unspeakable horror with a football is unforgivable. It's Geovanni's nadir. His only way is up now, assuming he is actually picked again.

That is only half a joke, as once Geovanni wriggled smartly away from Barry and Milner only to then opt to shoot - with unflailing inaccuracy - from distance instead of giving an unshepherded Cousin an opportunity, the red mist descended. Cousin and Geovanni argued for the remaining few minutes of the half (in heaven only knows what language) and were on the brink of fisticuffs as the players trooped down the tunnel at the break. Evidence of who was deemed the culprit was obvious when Cousin returned for the second half but the fallen Brazilian didn't, with Nick Barmby taking his place. During all this handbaggy nonsense, Myhill had made a fine save from the exciting but currently formless Gabriel Agbonlahor, though the criticism of him by Villa fans is beyond any pale - if you don't want him, we could certainly make use of him.

The second half, then. It was a bit better, though again this was as much about Villa's policy of maintaining rather than creating, and even then only when Manucho came on to replace Kilbane in the last 20 minutes did we look like an authentic, equaliser-seeking side. Ahead of this final throw of the dice, Myhill had made three excellent saves; tipping round the post Barry's long-distance shot, beating away Milner's fizzing low drive and, best of all, slapping Carew's point blank header on to the roof of the net while everyone of a black and amber persuasion was appealing for another offside that never arrived. Such was the anger at this non-decision that nobody got round to noticing the quality of the save until much later, and Myhill was, unfortunately, not heralded for it.

City had a bizarre and embarrassing free kick which Cousin and Kilbane got so confused over that neither made room for the other to shoot before a Villa foot was, lawfully, getting in the way. Fortunately, it got in the way of Cousin's shin rather than the ball and so another set-piece was proffered, and this time Dawson, with the aid of an indignant travelling support who have wondered aloud all season why our proficient free-kick taker has been so rarely used on them this season, shoved the others out the way and prepared his own attempt, which deflected off the wall for a corner.

Cousin shot at the keeper after a cross from Sam Ricketts which had been pretty much his first successful foray to the byline, then a Dawson free kick, whipped in low, had both Manucho and Kamil Zayatte lunging at it, but only the latter got a touch and it wasn't so meaningful as to trouble Brad Friedel, who clutched the ball on his line.

City forced three corners in succession during the four added minutes, the first of which produced a Boateng shot which was heading goalwards but rebounded wide by a desperate Villa leg. Myhill went up for the second and stayed there for the third, and was in possession of the ball on the left wing upon the final whistle's knell.

Another defeat, and another one to chalk off and forget. The advantage remains ours and gets a little stronger as the games, slowly but visibly, begin to run out. We're still three clear of the drop and Stoke City, a team easy to despise but who we would kill to be right now (apart from the bit about being based in Stoke on Trent), come to the KC on Saturday. It's too easy to say we should win, given their lamentable away record, as we are next to useless at home too. But we'd rather have Stoke at home than any other fixture whatsoever this weekend, and with two of the teams chasing us playing each other and being most frightened of the prospect, it is still in our hands. It's up to us whether we elect to spill it or not.