Stoke held at home but Aston Villa's scoring drought continues

While the result may always be pre-eminent, there are matches when the performance, or at least the manner of it, is almost as important.

For the sake of the manager the two home defeats Aston Villa had suffered before this game demanded a committed response from Alex McLeish's team, and for all that the visitors came perilously close to losing, to some extent they got it.

McLeish's selection provided grounds for comment, most obviously because he decided not to risk Darren Bent, the England striker he insists no other club could afford to buy during the January transfer window. Bent's continued absence suggests it might be worth making an offer, although the official word was that despite being back in training the player is still suffering from a thigh injury. After choosing to do a spot of Christmas shopping instead of taking in the Liverpool game on 18 December, at least he came along to watch this one. He saw his team-mates make a positive start.

An early Robert Huth header over the bar aside, it was the visitors who looked the more creative of the two sides, breaking from defence with pace and not a little imagination. Emile Heskey in particular worked extraordinarily hard in both defence and attack, and was unlucky when he shrugged off Dean Whitehead to meet Charles N'Zogbia's corner with a glancing header which came back off the outside of the near post.

Stoke's threat, as tends to be the case when their wingers struggle for possession, was being restricted almost exclusively to set-pieces, but that is never negligible, as Huth again demonstrated with another powerful header over the bar from Whitehead's free-kick. At the other end Stiliyan Petrov's shot from an angle was disappointing after the smart passing that preceded it, but with both sides struggling for fluency, the hope was for better things after the break.

It was typical of McLeish's luck at the moment that Heskey should have to be replaced during half-time, having suffered a recurrence of an Achilles problem. Forced though it was, the switch almost paid immediate dividends when Nathan Delfouneso's pace enabled him to get a stretching toe to Gabby Agbonlahor's low cross. The City goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen's save was better than it may have looked. Huth, up for another corner, once again could not direct his header on target, but the quietness of the home crowd was an indication of their concern, the more so after N'Zogbia, cutting in from the left, drove a shot just wide.

It was Stoke who went closest to scoring, though, and it must have dismayed McLeish that, as against Liverpool and Arsenal, it was a set-piece that nearly resulted in his team falling behind. As Matthew Etherington swung in a corner from the left, Carlos Cuellar lost Marc Wilson, and the Stoke defender's header hit the underside of the bar and was going in before it came back off the chest of Agbonlahor, jumping on the line. The sight of Petrov shooting wide from close on 40 yards suggested Villa were running out of ideas, and emphasised the club's pressing need for a consistent creative midfielder.

This result means his team have not scored in five of their past seven games. But to buy, McLeish knows he will have to sell. He may not intend that Bent is the one to leave: circumstances may dictate otherwise.

Powered by article was written by Richard Rae at Britannia Stadium, for The Guardian on Monday 26th December 2011 22.06 Europe/London © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010


image: © Ronnie Macdonald

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