Villa's Euro bid derailed despite Jagielka lifeline
ASTON VILLA 2
The referee, Martin Atkinson, called time of death at precisely 9.37 last night, but it has been clear for some time that reviving Aston Villa's challenge for fourth place was beyond that of even the most accomplished paramedic.
The end came via two clinical Tim Cahill headers, although a Gabby Agbonlahor strike and an own goal by Phil Jagielka mean Villa will go to work tomorrow, their hopes reincarnated by the prospect of the Europa League.
Once again, Villa will claim human error on the part of the referee for denying them what was a vital win in their bid to qualify for the Champions League, but Everton were simply more incisive with their passing, Steven Piennar and Osman thrusting away in midfield in a way that James Milner and Ashley Young did not.
This draw might feel like a success, snatched as it was from the jaws of defeat, but after a season spent chasing fourth, it is a failure, and those with forensic minds will begin the process of picking over the rubble.
Cahill provided the mortal blows, but a longer-term malaise has been responsible for Villa's slide from a credible position from which to contest fourth place, to their present location, hanging onto seventh for dear life.
O'Neill's consistency in his team selection was arguably responsible for much of his side's early success, but the players are now on their last legs. Their fatigue was illustrated perfectly moments before half-time when Milner broke, eight blue shirts racing back with him. When the midfielder looked up, he would have seen out of the corner of his eye John Carew, Gabby Agbonlahor and Stiliyan Petrov far behind. Only Young was with him.
In fairness, it was not the way the match had begun, a hugger-mugger battle from the first. Osman, Diniyar Bilyaletdinov, Stewart Downing, Milner and Carew all had shots of varying accuracy in the opening exchanges, while Richard Dunne could have conceded a penalty when he seemed to handle the ball in the area. It was a busy first 15 minutes.
Yet, after the controversy at Wembley, it seemed inevitable that Villa would again come to grief at the hands of a referee. That is just the way their luck is going, and sure enough Atkinson awarded a foul against Stephen Warnock for his tackle on Osman in the 23rd minute, just outside the Villa area. The two collided -- whether it was Warnock's fault is open to interpretation.
The Villa supporters' coarse jeremiads against Atkinson morphed into a gargled scream as Leighton Baines swung in the free-kick and Cahill slipped free of Dunne to head beyond Friedel from point blank range. Young had cause for complaint, for he was being roughed up by John Heitinga, but he should have played the whistle, while Dunne should have stuck to his man.
Adopting that sentiment oft quoted in self-help dating manuals -- if you don't shoot, you don't score -- Villa continued to attack, perseverance which was rewarded when Agbonlahor nodded past Howard. Two minutes later Bilyaletdinov found Cahill from a corner, but Villa dug deep, fuelled by heaven-knows-what, and forced Jagielka into his mistake from a Young cross. (© Daily Telegraph, London)