Gérard Houllier senses way forward for Aston Villa after Everton draw

In many ways this was a step in the right direction for Gérard Houllier.

Gérard Houllier senses way forward for Aston Villa after Everton draw It could easily have been a leap, but for the familiar failings that continue to undermine his Aston Villa side. A belligerent second-half display looked like yielding three points and relieving the pressure on Houllier but instead the Frenchman was forced to endure the sight of Villa once again relinquishing a lead.

Leighton Baines's penalty, seven minutes from time, meant that Villa have dropped 23 points from winning positions this season – more than any other Premier League club. They have also conceded 20 goals in the last 15 minutes, a record matched only by Blackpool. Fitness is often questioned in such circumstances but Villa's inability to see matches through would appear to owe more to mental fragility and individual errors.

"I don't think you can blame it on fitness," said Darren Bent, who scored two predatory second-half goals to put Villa 2-1 up after Leon Osman had scored for Everton. "Sometimes it just happens and it always seems to happen when you're down there fighting for your lives, where little things go against you. Maybe people switch off, maybe there's a mistake made."

Villa's defence looked vulnerable. Richard Dunne and James Collins were recalled for the first time since their drunken fracas at a health spa but neither was convincing and Kyle Walker's defensive weaknesses were highlighted. Walker got away with a poor header when Brad Friedel saved from Jermaine Beckford but the full-back was not so fortunate when Diniyar Bilyaletdinov dispossessed him and invited Osman to run at Collins before scoring.

Bent's first, after fine work from the excellent Stewart Downing, kickstarted an impressive response.

"We didn't think we got after Everton enough in the first half," said Bent. "We didn't press them and we made it easy for them and, to be fair, they played some good stuff. But [in the] second half we got in their faces and really started to try and hurt them. It was just disappointing we didn't get three points."

Everton had good reason to feel the same way. Beckford's shot appeared to cross the line but the flag stayed down. Villa went up the other end and scored again. They sensed a rare away win but their hopes were dashed when the referee, Mike Jones, penalised Jean Makoun for fouling Phil Jagielka. "You can see clearly by the replay that Jean's not stuck a leg out and Jagger has kicked himself and gone over," said Bent.

Baines scored from the spot to give a threadbare Everton side – not one of the seven players on the substitutes' bench had a Premier League appearance to their name – a deserved point. "It's not a good situation for the manager to be in," said Baines, reflecting on David Moyes' lack of options. "But it has happened to us before at this club. We somehow pull together."

Houllier senses Villa are doing the same after their recent problems. His decision to deploy Ashley Young wide and revert to 4-4-2 brought reward and the Villa manager was also entitled to take encouragement from the spirit his players showed in the second half. "That was exactly the type of character and technical competitiveness we need," he said.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Stuart James at Goodison Park, for The Guardian on Monday 4th April 2011 07.01 Europe/London

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