Villa give Ferguson classy final warning
FULHAM 0 ASTON VILLA 2
As a fact-finding mission for Alex Ferguson, this was a convenient chance to assess upcoming Carling Cup final opponents Aston Villa as well as cast an eye over an Old Trafford defender of the future, Chris Smalling.
The Manchester United manager looked so spectacularly relaxed he would appear not to be remotely worried about either.
But in Gabriel Agbonlahor, Aston Villa possess a striker who is capable of hurting anyone. He ripped up concerns over his team's recent toothlessness and tossed them into the bin.
Villa's four-match scoreless sequence in the league ended five minutes before half-time, as Agbonlahor displayed the nous to meet Stilian Petrov's swirling cross with an instinctive cushioned header. It was frustrating for his marker, Smalling, who was not quite as alive to the cross as the striker. Up until then he had shown enough composure and quality to earn some satisfied smiles from his new manager-to-be.
Like the proverbial bus, Villa's second came along almost immediately.
Carlos Cuellar teed up Agbonlahor, who twirled away from Brede Hangeland and bent the ball deliciously past Mark Schwarzer's despairing grasp for his 10th league goal of the season. It was so classy, even Arsene Wenger would have been hard-pressed to fail Villa on the aesthetics test here.
"I know that strikers need to score goals to keep themselves alive and give themselves confidence," said Martin O'Neill. "I learnt from a brilliant previous manager that sometimes you don't get your just deserts on the day. Gabriel taking those two goals today were as much about his performance against Arsenal on Wednesday night. He got his deserts today and he was fantastic."
Aston Villa might have done even more damage in the first half but for a reflex save from Schwarzer, who repelled Luke Young's sharp header from Ashley Young's whizzing cross.
There was little evidence to support Arsene Wenger's view of Villa as a long-ball team as they used a passing game to kill the match off by half-time. "I'm pleased to be back to winning ways. I'm delighted with the team and thought we deserved to win," said O'Neill.
In response to Wenger's comments, he added: "We thought about putting Ashley Young in a bear suit . . . Our players can play, there's no doubt it. We have centre-backs who are as comfortable with the ball at their feet as any pairing in the league. Perhaps the comment was overblown at the time."
Fulham, without a league win since they embarrassed Manchester United six weeks ago, must have felt like a double-decker had hit them. Although they were sloppy in possession for much of the first half, they were not without chances either. Bobby Zamora's knockdown invited Simon Davies to hook in a volley, and Fulham's target man later made a chance for himself. Zamora did the hard work, turning into space courtesy of a stylish first touch, then watched his shot arc over the bar.
Zoltan Gera showed some signs of life in Fulham with a poked shot that Brad Friedel scrambled away, followed by a long-range drive. Home substitute David Elm had a goal disallowed for offside, and another effort deflected.
"Up until that two-goal period the game looked a 0-0 in the making. We didn't pose enough threat, they threatened more," said Roy Hodgson. "We've suffered a bad home defeat and don't feel good about that, but we weren't diabolical today. We're suffering from our injury situation but we were disappointed with the manner in which we conceded those goals."
And so Fulham lost at home for the first time since September. There's no mistaking that their opponents played them in a moment of weakness, but it's a compliment to Villa's ambition all the same.