Saturday 24 February 2018

Milner strikes for rampant Villa

Sandy Macaskill



FOR the past four years, Aston Villa has been a spin-off of the Martin O'Neill show. Yesterday balance was restored, primacy given back to the players.

General Charles Krulak, a confidant of owner Randy Lerner, had complained that no one man is bigger than the club; with a display of consummate team-work, the Villa players proved it. In the past week a number have hinted at their unhappiness through the press; this was by far the more effective message.

It was fitting that this match should be lit by lightning, with a deluge adding to the drama. Villa emerged from the shadows with three goals, from Stewart Downing, Stiliyan Petrov and James Milner (his last?). But there could have been more. Villa hit the post and crossbar twice apiece. Quite an introduction to top-flight management for caretaker manager Kevin MacDonald.

Whereas O'Neill looked like he was permanently being dive-bombed by a swarm of bees, MacDonald appears to be the kind of man happy to watch in silence.

Not that he had cause for discomfort: he saw enough to know Villa were "outstanding".

Take Downing, for instance. He looked at Winston Reid, who had been set the task of dogging the winger for the afternoon, as he would a piece of chewing gum stuck to his shoe, then treated the New Zealander, on his Premier League debut, like a part-timer.

Interlinking with Ashley Young, and the superb Marc Albrighton, Downing dominated the midfield. It was fitting that he opened the scoring, when Young's cross in the 15th minute was only half cleared by Robert Green. The ball dropped for Albrighton, who volleyed across goal for Downing to side-foot home. West Ham's defending early on was shocking.

It was similarly dire when Young was given too much time outside the area to turn to goal and pick out Petrov, who timed his run into the area to perfection. The Villa captain rose like some creature from the deep and headed past Green.

Soon the heavens opened, rain teeming down, sending supporters scurrying for cover. Good for the lawn, not so useful for controlling a football, and the quality subsided until Milner -- who had been given a mixed reception before kick-off -- struck the ball first time into the bottom right corner. There were no rumbling boos when the PA crackled into life to announce his name this time.

In truth, as good as Villa were they were made to look even better by West Ham. The closest Avram Grant's side came to scoring was when centre-back James Tomkins hit his own post after John Carew had failed to take advantage of a terrible back-pass. Villa stopper Brad Friedel barely muddied his knees.

Immediately after the match, money was being placed on MacDonald being kept on. After one match and one win, he joked that he should retire. "Too soon," he said, when asked whether he would stake a claim for the job. Some Villa fans would disagree -- they loved every minute of it.

O'Neill would have hated it.

Sunday Independent

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