Heskey strikes to ease tension
ASTON VILLA 2 WEST BROM 1
Just for a moment in the second half, Gerard Houllier must have been back at Anfield again. Not waving to the wrong set of fans or wearing his heart on his sleeve in the press room, but watching Emile Heskey miss glorious opportunities.
Aston Villa could have made this victory much easier had Heskey put away a 65th-minute chance when Ashley Young rolled the ball across goal in his direction, but, being Heskey, he managed to make no contact -- just as he failed to stay on his feet when Young tried to send him through the middle a few minutes later. For Houllier, the memories would have been flooding back, so it was just as well Heskey finally found the net 10 minutes from the end.
The goal owed at least as much to the accuracy of Marc Albrighton's cross as anything Heskey did -- the striker simply allowed the ball to bounce off him -- but no one was complaining. The Holte End chanted Heskey's name and Houllier was off the hook. After defeats at Liverpool and Birmingham, the manager would have been under severe pressure had West Brom taken anything from a ground where they have not won in the league for more than 30 years.
When it was put to Houllier that the Villa fans would not have been expecting a goal from Heskey, he regarded the notion carefully for several seconds. "He has been out for a long time," he finally answered. "There will be more to come. Age is no barrier to progress provided you still have the energy and Emile has. If I'm honest, the overwhelming feeling is one of relief after a win. It is never easy playing on the back of a series of defeats."
Roberto Di Matteo conceded Albion lacked a cutting edge without the injured Peter Odemwingie, but had a point in claiming his side initially had Villa on the back foot. "I was pleased with the first half hour, it was difficult to see Villa scoring," he said.
Heskey's return was one of five Villa changes after the 3-0 collapse at Liverpool, Richard Dunne dropping down to the bench and Stephen Ireland losing his place in the squad. Houllier had pinpointed defence and confidence as areas of concern, and you could see what he meant as a sprightly West Brom gave the home side a pummelling in the first quarter.
Chris Brunt and Marc-Antoine Fortune rolled shots narrowly wide and Somen Tchoyi hit the bar after dancing in from the corner flag. So it was against the run of play when Villa took the lead on 25 minutes. It was a well-worked goal, with the lively Albrighton beating his man on the wing before sending over his cross. The ball ran through for Stewart Downing to extend a leg and divert it just inside the far upright.
Some of West Brom's self-belief ebbed away after that. They lacked their early snap and the Villa defence began to feel comfortable. Content to bide their time, Villa settled for effectively playing on the break at home and rarely getting players forward in support of Heskey and Ashley Young. They continued in the same manner after the interval, even though, when they did attack as a unit, they came close to a second goal, Albrighton missing the target after Downing's cross.
The closest West Brom came to an equaliser was when a sharp chance fell to Gonzalo Jara near the penalty spot, only for the defender to stab a hasty attempt wide.
When Heskey finally scored it seemed to have put paid to any West Brom hopes, yet Paul Scharner rose impressively to pull a goal back for the visitors in the penultimate minute and there was still enough normal time left for Thomas to put a splendid opportunity to share the points over the bar.
Villa are up to 14th, but neither they nor their manager can afford to relax just yet.