Thursday 26 April 2018

O’Neill keeps cool over his ‘crazy’ gang’s rise

Agbonlahor 40 44

Conrad Leach

FOR a team that has won at Old Trafford and Anfield this season, Aston Villa should have strolled to victory at Craven Cottage.

Two goals from Gabriel Agbonlahor, in the space of four minutes just before half-time, settled matters but the visitors were unconvincing at the start and although Brad Friedel did not have to make many saves, there was some desperation in defence at the end.

However, thanks to Agbonlahor’s ninth and 10th league goals, Villa’s push for a Champions League position perked up considerably, especially with Tottenham conceding a late equaliser at Birmingham City.

This has already been a better season than last for Villa, with them reaching the Carling Cup final, to be played at the end of this month, but it is in the league where Martin O’Neill’s side wants to show its true worth.

Not that the Villa manager is stoking hopes of a top-four finish and the chance of a first foray among the elite of European football in just under 30 years. He said: “It (the Champions League) is crazy talk. Spurs are a very fine side, Manchester City are in there and you wouldn’t count Liverpool out either. Those sides are stronger than us in terms of strength in depth and that’s my concern.”

James Collins, who alongside Richard Dunne formed a near-impenetrable barrier in front of Friedel when Fulham were pressuring, sees a topfour place as more reachable than O’Neill. He said: “The top four is what we are striving for. Now there is a big game against Tottenham next weekend. If we do want to finish in the top four we have got to go there and put in a good performance.”

Fulham have lost five consecutive league games and Villa had also hit a mid-season wall, having failed to score in four consecutive league games. Agbonlahor’s first strike ended a club drought of seven hours and nine minutes in league football and his second, after Brede Hangeland’s slip was, for O’Neill, exactly what his striker deserved after playing so well against Arsenal last Wednesday.

If this game was a chance to examine Villa’s Champions League credentials, it was also an opportunity to watch Chris Smalling in action. The Fulham centre-half was bought by Manchester United last week in a deal that could cost £12m, although the central defender will stay with Roy Hodgson’s side for the rest of the season. Aaron Hughes thinks United have done good business. He said: “I think we’ll look back in a few years and (United will) see it as a bargain. They’ll look back and say they stole him.”

However, the 20-year-old was caught out by Agbonlahor’s alert run and jump for the first goal but he also showed the strength and confidence on the ball that caught Alex Ferguson’s attention in the first place.

The United manager was in the crowd, watching his new signing and taking some notes on his opponents in the Carling Cup final. However, it is the league that is uppermost in everyone’s thoughts.

Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Hughes, Smalling, Hangeland, Kelly (Riise, 74); S Davies (Gera, 25), Murphy, Baird, Duff; Zamora, Nevland (Elm, 65) Substitutes not used: Zuberbühler (gk), Stoor, Greening, Dikgacoi.

Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Collins, Dunne, L Young; A Young, Milner, Petrov, Downing; Heskey, Agbonlahor Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Sidwell, Delfouneso, C Davies, Delph, Shorey, Beye.

Referee: L Mason (Lancashire)

Booked:Aston Villa: L Young, Heskey.

Man of the Match: Agbonlahor.

Attendance: 25,408

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