At times uninspired, at others frustrated, the guests were fortunate to leave Britannia Stadium with a share of the spoils. They only bothered to trouble Stoke goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen after nearly a half-hour of apathetic play, and their best chance to open the scoring was squandered when John Carew deflected Stewart Downing’s accurate shot into the side netting just after the restart.
By then, Carlos Cuellar, Richard Dunne and James Milner had each been booked, and Stephen Warnock would be penalized as well before the whistle blew on the 0-0 draw. So much for dirty, physical Stoke. On this night it was Villa with a bee up their shorts, although they seemed unable to transplant that intensity from the middle of the park—where most of the battles were fought—to the goalmouth, where they were impotent.
Villa never really looked like scoring over the duration of the match, but you never got the feeling they were going to concede, either. And while it might be grasping at straws, the single point didn’t signal the start of the perennial spring tailspin, and it kept them within striking distance of Spurs with two games in hand.
It was a point Villa never would have earned last season, or the one before that. No, they would have buckled under the pressure exerted by Tottenham’s 3-1 win against Blackburn earlier in the day. And while they didn’t keep pace with Spurs, they managed to get something out of an energetic club with an impressive home record. Liverpool and Manchester City were each only able to take a point from the Britannia this season, and only Arsenal have won at Stoke since Christmas.
Villa, however, might have done better had Gabriel Agbonlahor been introduced sooner. As it happened, manager Martin O’Neill opted to rest his 23-year-old striker—recently recovered from a bout of flu—and started Emile Heskey up front alongside John Carew.
Heskey, not surprisingly, was a non-factor—the biggest waste of space on a field crowded with them. But it wouldn’t be fair to hang the result on him, or on the manager. Villa, as a team, deserved what they got. They didn’t play well enough to win, but they didn’t play poorly enough to lose.
They can get away with it once, particularly at bogey club like Stoke. But if it happens again against one of Wigan, Wolves or Sunderland before the end of the month… Well, let’s not go there just yet.