Gérard Houllier's great gamble has backfired.
The Aston Villa manager appeared an unapologetic pragmatist in abandoning the FA Cup to focus on the Premier League and, had his side displayed a similar ruthlessness, he would have been rewarded with three points. Instead they were wasteful in attack and weak in defence as Ivan Klasnic pilfered the points for an indefatigable Bolton team.
The manager whose name rang around the Reebok Stadium at the end of an extraordinary game was Owen Coyle. Houllier, to his detractors, is more villain than Villan, a tarnished figure in a week in which the Midlanders have been troubled by the actions of managers past and present. Houllier had courted controversy in fielding a depleted team at Manchester City last Wednesday. Three years ago his predecessor, Martin O'Neill, allowed Gary Cahill to join Bolton. A player with a solitary goal all season, Cahill contrived to score two equalisers against his old employers. The immutable law of the ex has not been revoked.
"We should blame ourselves because we sold him to Bolton," said Houllier. "Not me, because I wasn't here." In a match where chances abounded – "it finished 3-2 and there could have been another five or six goals in it," Coyle said – his centre-back proved the most clinical finisher. Cahill struck twice from corners, nodding in Martin Petrov's cross for his initial equaliser and meeting Stuart Holden's ball with a forceful header for the second. Brad Friedel parried, but Cahill responded by directing the rebound beyond the goalkeeper. "A left-foot volley and he is a right-footed player," Coyle said. "Gary Cahill has got the feet of a centre-forward; so quick, so assured. He could play for anyone in world football."
Defence, indeed, was Bolton's finest form of attack. Their other central defender, David Wheater, supplied the winner, heading the ball into the path of the substitute Klasnic, who drilled in his third goal in three games. "The Klasnic finish was special," Coyle said. It was a third occasion, too, when Wanderers exploited Villa's frailty in the air. "The result is because we were vulnerable on set pieces," Houllier argued. "Everything starts from the back."
In between the two penalty areas, Villa were vibrant. They attacked with pace and penetration, especially on the right flank where Kyle Walker, Marc Albrighton and, when he swapped wings, Stewart Downing were rampant. Finding space between Bolton's back four and midfield, Ashley Young had an elusive excellence. None of it, in the final reckoning, counted for anything.
"We had the chances to win, nearly a dozen," Houllier lamented. Five fell Darren Bent's way. Villa's record buy hit the post, had an effort cleared off the line by Wheater and twice picked out Jussi Jaaskelainen in Bolton's goal. Bent also scored when Walker sashayed beyond Stuart Holden and Paul Robinson to whip in a cross that presented him with a tap-in.
A second goal was fashioned when Villa's wingers switched flanks; Downing delivered from the right and Albrighton's volley bounced over Jaaskelainen. "We played well, we created chances, we were cruising," added Houllier. "I said to Gary McAllister: 'It shouldn't be 2-1, it should be 4-1 or 5-1.'" At the very least, it should have been 3-1. Ashley Young won a penalty – an award Coyle disputed – but Jaaskelainen produced a fine parry to deny the Villa captain.
Cue the Bolton comeback. "What we have is a real sense of togetherness, a real bravery and courage," Coyle added. "We're never out of a game." So Villa can testify after the depressing end to a dramatic week. "Wednesday is finished, I have dealt with it," Houllier said. But it has not helped him.
THE FANS' PLAYER RATINGS AND VERDICT
ADAM ORR, Observer reader We rode our luck at times but never gave up. They could have been 3-0 or 4-0 up before we even had a shot, but they kept missing and got punished. Obviously their penalty miss was a turning point and lifted the whole place – it was a very good save, though the build-up to the incident was dubious as it looked like the ball had gone out of play. The referee was poor all afternoon - we had two handball shouts in the second half that were not given. Klasnic didn't get a touch until he scored, but it was sweet for Cahill to score twice against his old club. It sets us up nicely for the FA Cup next week.
The fan's player ratings Jaaskelainen 8; Steinsson 6, Cahill 9, Wheater 7, Robinson 6; Elmander 5 (Klasnic 67 8), Holden 8, Muamba 4 (M Davies 60 6), Petrov 4 (Lee 60 7); K Davies 6, Sturridge 6
JONATHAN PRITCHARD, Observer reader To be honest, I'm still livid about Wednesday's Cup selection. Even if we'd won today it wouldn't have justified it. And it became almost self-fulfilling today. The signals Houllier gave to the squad were wrong, and this lack of confidence in our players is part of the problem. Before the game we were as close to Europe as a relegation spot but now we're looking over our shoulders. We should have won today and won comfortably but the penalty miss changed it all. Downing did well, as did Albrighton, but our forwards missed a hatful of chances, and we just look like we're going to buckle. We look vulnerable.
The fan's player ratings Friedel 5; Walker 7, L Young 7, Clark 7, Baker 6; Albrighton 7 (Agbonlahor 83 n/a), Reo-Coker 7, Delph 8 (Petrov 77 n/a), Downing 7; A Young 6; Bent 5
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