Football

A VILLAN’S ‘GRAND DAY OUT’: A SHORT NARRATIVE

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At the end of 2015, I take a tongue in cheek poke at the crisis that’s enveloping the Pride of the Midlands. 

The morning’s faint light trickled through the drawn curtains of 18 Winless Street. Restlessly tossing from side to side on his unyielding mattress, a Villan emerged from his broken sleep with no more than a generous headache. Plagued by nightmares of spectacular Alan Hutton own goals, worry had defeated his entitlement to 8 hours’ rest, and beads of perspiration sat upon his forehead like a flat back four organised by Lescott. He jolted upright in readiness for the shrill full-time whistle of his alarm clock; he would be prepared. Sure enough, when the sound pierced the stale air, he flung his arms to his immediate left and battered the alarm clock into submission. He’d been rehearsing this very routine and, decorated with more agility than Guzan, was able to pull off a sensational save from this discord.

The Villan was downbeat, quiet understandably, but refusing to let Randy Lerner control his state of mind, he had decided upon an outing to the seaside, to, well, get away from it all. It would be his ‘Grand Day Out’. He searched through the semi-darkness for his trusty wardrobe, only to recoil in disgust at an outfit that had magically appeared there overnight. An N’Zogbia inspired floral linen shirt and trousers leapt out at him, its garish pattern unmistakeable.

“How bizarre” thought the Villan to himself. “I’ve never seen one of those retailed in Solihull, let alone make its way into my wardrobe.” Despite his initial contempt towards the clothes, the Villan concluded that such a summery little number would be a perfect fit for a day at the beach. He hurriedly threw on the matching garments and collected a bucket and spade; plastic implements that he intended to use for digging himself out of the relegation quagmire. The Villan skipped breakfast, his stomach still sloshing with a number of spirits consumed after his club fell 11 points adrift, and he unadvisedly hopped behind the wheel of his Ford Unfocus.

An hour into his ropey journey, the Villan got stuck behind a desolate double-decker on the narrowest of country lanes. The traffic was backing up, he some 19 cars from the front to reflect Villa’s pitifully negative goal difference. Staring morosely at this unsightly vehicle painfully reminded the Villan of how a bus, not dissimilar to this one, could have been driven through a defence consisting of Richards and Crespo for Stoke’s winner in early October. Such memories were hardly lifting the gloom from the Villan’s shoulders and his headache was showing no sign of relenting. The Unfocus’ radio suddenly roared into life with an announcement of a burst water main just 2 miles northbound of where he was heading. The Villan slowly put his hands to his face in astonishment, a body movement reminiscent of that which he made in the Upper Holte when Ayew shot wide from 3 yards against Swansea. Still, no time to cry over spilt milk. This, after all, was his ‘Grand Day Out’.

“Rats!” cried the Villan some minutes later. It had been a coy manoeuvre that had seemingly backfired on him. He had made the bold decision to complete a 34 point turn in the Unfocus – a skill that Westwood would have appreciated, less so the other irritable and stationary road users. The Villan was successful in turning the vehicle around and heading back towards his own goal, only to tragically get his rear wheels stuck in some of the thickest mud known to man. The tiring tyres whirred with as much energy as Carles Gil’s little legs, but no forward progress was made. He was well and truly stuck!

The Villan started pouring through his phonebook looking for some help with this latest difficulty. ‘Agbonlahor’, ‘Bacuna’, the lesser spotted ‘Llori’: no they’d be no good for this particular predicament. Against his better judgement, the Villan had to call for some roadside support. He reached the voicemail of T. Fox, who eventually returned his call to advise the Villan that a double team of Remi and Remy would soon be on their way. The Villan patiently sat for hours, watching the queue of cars sporting lesser teams disappear gradually into the distance. After further tapping of his watch and more biting of nails, the Villan became resigned to the fact that no rescue act was forthcoming, that there was no getting out of this hole. He would have to walk the long way home.

It was getting close to nightfall now when the weary, walker Villan saw a haven of comfort to his right, a public house in the middle of nowhere. A flag outlining a small but resilient boat in choppy waters, hung from its uppermost window. As he got closer, the Villan was able to decipher the unlit lettering of the pub. It read: ‘The Champion Ship’. Warmed by the thought of a pint or three, he entered briskly and immediately felt at home. ‘The Champion Ship’ was an environment that smelt of mediocrity, was hardly ornately furnished, but could be considered a good and proper “not so local”.

And it’s at this point, that our narrative ends as I’d like to raise a glass to all fellow Villans and wish you a happier and more fruitful New Year! Cheers.

The Weary Villan’s Road to Wembley

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Pessimism pulses through the veins of every ardent Villa fan. To expect anything other than defeat detracts from what it means to wear the claret and blue of the Brummie club; suffering has become part and parcel of a Villan’s existence. Fate has cruelly conspired against us on more occasions than not, typically between 85 and 94 minutes of a football match. We’ve become the masters of losing leads and losing heads as Carlos Sanchez invariably fells an opponent on the edge of the box. I am a keen hygiene freak, but the main reason for keeping my fingernails short is to avoid biting them through stubborn spells of rear-guard action, spells which can span an entire match. Still, here we are on the brink of FA Cup glory, but rest assured the road to potential success has been a long one.

I vividly remember seeing Villa in the flesh for the first time on a crisp, but dry autumnal afternoon in 1998. Nottingham Forest stood between John Gregory’s side and three precious points; it was an experience that would prepare me for the roller-coaster life of a Villa fan thereafter. It took little over half an hour to fall behind; Chris Bart-Williams was credited with the forgettable 32nd minute opener. With the half-time whistle fast approaching, disaster struck again for my six-year old self. Already a goal down, my misery was compounded by Dougie Freedman’s pile-driver that surprised just about everybody in the ground. It was a ripsnorter of a strike from 30 yards and, 16 years on, I haven’t seen many better.

Bart-Williams’ tap-in and the ruthless Freedman arrow threatened to puncture my spirit just 45 minutes into my Villa career. During the interval, I had the opportunity of waving the white flag and beating a hasty retreat into footballing obscurity. It sure would have spared me subsequent years of heartache. Somewhat unfortunately, I opted to sit tight and watch the second period unfold. Julian Joachim reduced arrears before the hour mark and followed this up five minutes later with an identically scruffy goal, the ball ricocheting off a hapless defender to allow the forward to apologetically poke home. Forest huffed and puffed for the remainder of the game without further success meaning that when the referee checked his watch and blew for full-time, I punched the air in celebration. ASTON VILLA HAD DRAWN. It was an almighty achievement! (Forest would eventually finish bottom of the 1998/99 table with a whopping minus 34 goal difference, but what was a young lad to understand of these statistics?)

A solitary point was all it had taken to form a life-long affiliation with Aston Villa, or Aston Nil-Niller as I affectionately rename the club during barren spells in front of goal. Whilst friends would tear around the streets in Gerrard 8 and Rooney 10 shirts, I’d outsprint them all in the unmistakable Agbonlahor 11 jersey. Pundits would pour praise over the classy Thierry Henry and the quick-thinking Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for minutes on end, when all I wanted was a 10 second mention of Juan Pablo Angel’s close range header against Leicester. Incidentally, I’m still waiting …

Over the last fifteen seasons, Villa fans (I use the plural because, contrary to popular opinion, there are some of us out there) have seen the Joey Gudjonsson, the bad and the ugly. For every Freddie Bouma, there’s been a Jlloyd Samuel, for every James Milner, a Yacouba Sylla. For every stunning 2-1 comeback at Norwich, there’s been an order restoring 8-0 drubbing to Chelsea. For every 16th placed finish, there’s never been cup silverware … Although Villa is the fifth most decorated club in history, their last trophy, discounting the Intertoto cup, was secured back in the 1995-96 campaign, a league cup triumph over Leeds United. You have to turn the clock back another thirty-eight years to discover Villa’s last FA Cup success, whilst six of the club’s seven league honours pre-date the First World War. Astonishing.

Tomorrow’s clash against Arsenal represents a chance to set the record straight, for Benteke to batter Koscielny in the air and for Gabby to uncharacteristically keep his cool before Ospina. Of course, the Gunners are electric on the break; the agile Alexis Sanchez and the blisteringly pacey Walcott will destroy Vlaar and Baker should the Villa defenders get pulled out of position. Ashley Westwood will have to keep his wits about him in order to deprive the unpredictable Mesut Ozil of time and space, and if Bacuna and N’Zogbia occupy Villa’s full-back positions as they did against Burnley last time out, it could be a cricket score. However, believe in the magic of the cup and hope springs eternal!

Scenario A:

“What a rocket from Aaron Ramsey! 3-0 Arsenal”

Scenario B:

“BENTEKE’S BULLET SURELY SETTLES IT!!!”

Supporting AVFC was never going to be a walk in the park and rarely one down Wembley Way. Only this week has somebody assured me that my soul shall ascend straight to heaven for backing the “zombie-club” through thick and thin. I sincerely doubt that He above will use this same rationale, but I sure hope that tomorrow’s final judgment works in my favour.

DARREN ENDS BARREN SPELL AS VILLA RISE TO SEE OFF MANSFIELD

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Darren Bent returned from exile to play a pivotal role in Aston Villa’s second half comeback against League Two side Mansfield Town.

The last occasion that the two teams had met was over forty years ago when a 1-1 draw was played out. A similar outcome looked increasingly likely as time ticked away last night, before late strikes from Gary Gardner (85) and Bent (90) sealed a 3-1 win for the West Midlands outfit.

Let's shake on it: The customary pre-match niceties.
Let’s shake on it: The customary pre-match niceties.

Thursday evening marked the second pre-season fitness test for the Stags who fielded several unnamed trialists, keen to impress and earn contract offers before the beginning of the new season. With the Premier League campaign always kicking-off after the football league season starts, it was Villa’s first run-out. Still, the visitors brought a full-strength side and ensured that all of their star performers got 45 minutes action under their belts.

It was the Villans who had the first meaningful chance of the game after 9 minutes. Leandro Bacuna was thwarted when he tried to round the goalkeeper, but the ball broke kindly to Joe Bennett whose weak shot was convincingly cleared off the line by Martin Riley.

Mansfield were not content to sit back and endure Villa pressure though. Ollie Palmer was in the thick of it for the Stags and showed great upper body strength to hold off Ciaran Clark and produce a goalbound effort from a tight angle.

If Palmer’s effort didn’t send Shay Given scrambling in the visitors goal, a finely struck Sam Clucas free-kick in the 34th minute certainly did. The left-footed midfielder curled the set-piece from distance, and the veteran Irishman just about pushed the ball to safety.

Bacuna continued to enjoy plenty of success down Villa’s right hand flank and after a neat one-two with Gabby Agbonlahor, fired straight at the miserly Mansfield keeper.

Despite Villa’s increased attacking threat, Jores Okore, returning from a serious knee injury, and Clark were unable to effectively deal with the physicality of Mansfield’s forward line. The breakthrough came in the 41st minute when John Dempster met Liam Marsden’s long throw, and Alex Fisher’s glancing header found the bottom left hand corner of the net. A pleasant round of applause met the goal. Rest assured, had this been a competitive game, there would have been frenzied scenes from the North Notts faithful.

Paul Lambert, now with Roy Keane his right man in command, completely changed his starting eleven at the break. He handed appearances to players that infamously made up last year’s “bomb squad”; that is footballers who allegedly fell out of favour owing to personal differences with the manager.

Among those were Charles N’Zogbia, Alan Hutton and Darren Bent, all of whom combined to level proceedings just after the hour mark. A simple pass from N’Zogbia picked out Hutton who seared past his opposite full-back to put the ball on a plate for Bent. The former England forward gratefully accepted the invitation to tap home from all of 0.5 yards and cue chants of “Na na na na na na na na na, Darren, Darren Bent, Darren Bent, Darren, Darren Bent” for the first time in months.

Hutton is back in the plans, and back on the ball.
Hutton is back in the plans, and back on the ball.

Just prior to the Villa equaliser, the Stags had an opportunity to extend their lead, but Jed Steer was out quickly to instinctively palm the ball away from Sam Clucas. Sadly the collision saw Clucas depart in some discomfort, and he was later seen leaving the ground on crutches.

The visitors clearly weren’t in a sympathetic mood as their performance improved tremendously during the second period. Andreas Weimann caught the eye with intelligent movement off the ball, and when he cut a ball back to Bent in the 78th minute, the striker was denied by an incredible diving stop from the Mansfield trialist.

There was little he could do about Gary Gardner’s finish with the outside of his right foot in the final five minutes though. A fluent passing move involving Gardner, Bent and Weimann came full circle as the injury-hit central midfielder found the bottom corner.

Villa weren’t finished there either. With practically the final kick of the game, the visitors’ Austrian wing-forward, Weimann, impressively got to the byline, and his dinked cross picked out Bent to perfection who duly headed home.

All rights for the above video go to Mansfield Town FC.

NOTE FROM THE WRITER

It was the stuff that dreams are made of, watching my local boyhood town stride out alongside my dearly beloved Premiership outfit on a beautiful July evening. Nearly 3500 pottered down to Field Mill/The One Call Stadium to relish the event. There was even a Birmingham contingent in excess of 1000 as yellow and royal blue kits brushed shoulders with supporters attired in claret and sky blue shirts. The blend of these colours in the supreme sunset was a joy to behold, and even the stewards in their fluorescent jackets added to what would have made a vibrant watercolour painting. The turnstiles were alive, and the executive suites did thrive with guests who gorged themselves on gourmet dishes.

Okay, okay. Maybe I have embellished the scene a little. There was less fine wining and dining than I have alluded to. There was an inevitably the odd unpleasant exchange between supporters too, but this game, a pre-season friendly notwithstanding, was a match that I had eagerly awaited during my 21 years on planet earth. With that in mind, dear reader, you can perhaps forgive me for forming an idealistic picture, one that is comparable to sipping cooling cocktails on Brazilian beaches; after all, we have all just enjoyed stunning World Cup coverage!

The game itself didn’t have any great Samba flair to it, despite the best efforts of Karim El Ahmadi’s backheel in the build-up to Villa’s third killer goal. Although it lacked this lively rhythmical dance, the match still proved a decent spectacle for spectators who could savour the net bulging on four separate occasions. Dressed in my faded out yellow Slazenger t-shirt in support of the Stags, I’d have appreciated a draw, but after a sluggish sixty minutes, Villa’s superiority slowly manifested itself. Still, I can’t have too many complaints having witnessed this personally sentimental fixture.

MATCH ANALYSIS: GIDDY CHILE MAKE SPAIN LOOK SILLY

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SPAIN 0-2 CHILE

World Champions Spain were knocked off their pedestal of international dominance in Rio de Janeiro last night, as they crashed out of Brazil 2014 at the group phase.

Having seen the Netherlands march on to six points before kick-off, the Spanish knew that given their own appalling goal difference, victory was of paramount importance against the South Americans.

After the nature of Spain’s defeat against the Dutch, it seemed likely that Del Bosque would alter his starting XI for the Chile match. He opted for two changes as long-serving Barcelona players, Xavi Hernandez and Gerard Pique, made way for the towering presence of Javi Martinez and speed demon Pedro. Eyebrows were raised with respect to Iker Casillas retaining his place in goal after a shambolic showing in the opening game, while Diego Costa could count himself a little fortunate to get the nod ahead of either Cesc Fabregas or Fernando Torres.

If Spain came into the match as a wounded animal, they ended it as a rawhide. They were stripped out of their skins by Chilean hunters who hustled and harried their opponents for the duration of the game. The front three of Arturo Vidal, Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez epitomised Chile’s work ethic as the attacking players regularly tracked back as well as chasing down lost causes in offensive areas.

Pressed for time and space, Spain became uncharacteristically ill-disciplined with their passing and were duly punished when Xabi Alonso squandered possession in the 19th minute.  Sanchez needed no second invitation as he hared down the right flank before passing inside to Aránguiz. The next part of the move was majestic as the midfielder had the vision to square the ball to Vargas. He in turn had the presence of mind to take Casillas out of the game with one touch and stab home on the stretch.

The Spanish were rattled but did temporarily improve. Still, Alonso couldn’t atone for his blunder when he harmlessly fired over a half volley in the 23rd minute after useful hold-up play from Costa.

The Chelsea bound forward was the next culprit before the half hour as he fluffed his lines from ten yards out. The chance arose when David Silva surprisingly got above his man to flick the ball into Costa’s path, but the fitness shy hitman was caught on his heels and could only prod a shot into the side netting.

The grimaces worn by España supporters developed into full blown looks of panic when it went from bad to worse for their nation in the 43rd minute. Any keeper learning his trade understands that you must parry or punch the ball away from the danger zone. However, this message appeared to have eluded the veteran between the Spanish sticks when dealing with a Sanchez free-kick. What should have been a regulation stop became another calamitous error from the experienced Real Madrid player. Aránguiz was grateful for Casillas’ generously punched offering when he received possession to the right of the penalty spot. Although he struggled to work the ball from under his feet, the midfielder could still produce a splendidly swerving toe poked finish into the top right corner.

The Spanish left the field for half time in a daze, but the world still expected a response from Del Bosque’s men after the interval, even if only to disprove Gary Linekar’s assertion that the Spaniards “looked less like evolving than dissolving”.

No magical metamorphosis was forthcoming though, because even when the 2010 Champions carved out good opportunities, the finishing touch deserted them. This was evident in the 49th minute when Costa broke the Chilean line of defence but couldn’t gather the ball cleanly and afforded Isla the time to make a goal saving intervention.

Sergio Busquets isn’t renowned for his goal scoring prowess, and he criminally passed up the opportunity to halve the deficit at the back post moments later. However unintentionally, Costa’s overhead kick arrived at the feet of an unmarked Busquets with 53 minutes on the clock. The holding midfielder stuck out a flailing left leg and somehow shanked his finish wide of the post from five yards.

As the reigning champions threw more men forward, it seemed inevitable that Chile would have chances to extend their lead on the break. After a well-crafted move, the tireless Isla couldn’t quite put the icing on the cake. The defender managed to latch onto the scuffed drive from his opposite full-back, but blazed the ball over the crossbar.

Chances for the Spanish to force their way back into the contest were kept at a premium which is testament to Chile’s organisation. Gary Medel was at the heart of their bank of five defenders, and “the bulldog” repeatedly slammed the door shut on the opposition.

With time ticking down, Spain were forced to try their luck from range. First Santi Cazorla’s guided effort was palmed around the post with consummate ease by the eccentric Claudio Bravo. The Chilean keeper then pulled off a stop for the cameras to deny Andres Iniesta from 25 yards, before maintaining his clean sheet with another decent save from Cazorla’s free kick with 88 gone.

With Spain silenced, the race for World Cup honours has been thrown wide open. Chile will be desperate to continue their good form against the Dutch in their last group game and so avoid what seems a likely last 16 encounter against host country, Brazil. They’ll have to do so without the crocked Aránguiz, who is suspected of tweaking a medial ligament, but nevertheless have an unrivalled team spirit that makes them hard not to fancy.

Player Ratings

Spain:                                                                          

Casillas 4, Azpilicueta 6, Martinez 5, Ramos 5, Alba 4.5, Alonso 3.5, Busquets 4.5, Pedro 4.5, Silva 5, Iniesta 5, Costa 4.5

Subs used: Koke 5, Torres 5.5, Cazorla 5.5

 

Chile:

Bravo 7, Isla 7, Silva 7, Medel 8, Mena 6.5, Jara 6, Diaz 7, Aránguiz 7.5, Vidal 7, Sanchez 7.5, Vargas 7

Subs used: Gutierrez 6, Valdivia and Carmona (insufficient time to earn rating)

 

Man of the Match: Medel

GROUP B PREVIEW (SPAIN VS CHILE): SPAIN, SHAKEN OR STIRRED?

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Many anticipated that Spain would beat the Netherlands, some predicted that a draw was the most likely result, while a handful of daring punters fancied the Dutch to defy the odds by claiming a narrow victory. However, nobody could have anticipated the 5-1 humiliation that the Spanish ultimately succumbed to. Del Bosque’s team cannot even console themselves with the knowledge that the result flattered their opponents. In truth, it could have been 6, 7, or possibly 8 …

Journalists have been searching for reasons behind Spain’s surprise capitulation. Iker Casillas obviously had a night to forget, while Diego Costa didn’t put his head to best use. Speaking of Costa, since he has been introduced as the spearhead of attack, the World champions are beginning to play a more direct style. The forward is renowned for timing runs to perfection before finishing with aplomb. To have a player of such pedigree hardly sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Costa’s inclusion has caused the Spanish to change tact. Given his aerial threat and sudden bursts of acceleration, they now have an out ball. However, being tempted to find the striker quickly, also increases the likelihood of possession being turned over. Spain may still have had the lion’s share of the ball against the Dutch, but afforded their opponents more possession than is usually the case. The equation is simple: the more of the ball you have, the less you have to defend, and the fewer goals you concede. The likes of Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba are excellent marauding full-backs, but like centre-halves Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique who are accomplished on the ball, these players struggle to shirk their doubters because they are partial to the defensive lapse. A great concern will be how comfortably Arjen Robben surged away from the Spanish rear-guard for the 5th Dutch goal, particularly given the searing pace that the Chileans also possess.

Chile will be eager to capitalise on any chance that the Spanish are still nursing the emotional wounds sustained during Friday night’s mauling. While Spanish supporters were lamentable, the Chilean equivalent were jubilant as their nation set the early pace in group B with a 3-1 win over Australia.  Most consider Alexis Sanchez to be the principle threat with his close ball control and mazy runs. Sanchez netted in the opening game and will be looking to add to that tally when he lines up against Barcelona teammates in Rio de Janeiro. Another stand out performer in Chile’s opening encounter was Jorge Valdívia. Aside from his well taken side-footed curling finish, the thirty year old’s technical ability was apparent from the way that he dictated play. Although the creative midfielder has a dubious reputation off the field, he is certainly allowing his football to do the talking on the pitch. The South Americans are no soft touch, particularly when the likes of Cardiff City’s Gary Medel are busy launching themselves into a tenacious tackle or two. When you pair being well drilled at the back and with the quality of being slick in attacking areas, you’re always going to have a reasonable team on your hands.

Verdict: Spain will be desperate to revive their World Cup dream and prove that their implosion on Friday 13th was caused by superstition transpiring against them. Having shipped 5 in that game, they may revert to a less expansive style and guard against the dangerous Chilean counter-attack. This is a special South American side though, and I expect honours to be even at the final whistle.

Prediction: Spain 2-2 Chile

GAME, SET, FRYATT.

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9 minutes of madness fire Hull City to Wembley semi!

IMG_0180[1]Fringe forward, Matty Fryatt rounded off an excellent day for everybody associated with the Tigers as the hosts cruised to a 3-0 victory over Sunderland in the FA Cup 6th round. Other second half strikes from Curtis Davies and ex-Black Cat, David Meyler, ensured that Hull reached the semi-final of England’s biggest domestic cup competition for the first time in 84 years.

Although both teams occupy bottom half Premier League positions, neither seemed deprived of confidence in a first half of honest endeavour and increasingly expansive play. Sunderland, having suffered Wembley heartbreak in the Capital One Cup final only a week ago, began confidently in possession, but it was Hull’s first foray into opposition territory that almost produced the game’s opening goal. After 4 minutes, Maynor Figueroa picked the ball up on the left wing. His seemingly innocuous cross sailed over Oscar Ustari’s head in the Sunderland goal as he helplessly watched it rebound off the woodwork.

The Tigers looked to build on their almost good fortune. With 9 minutes on the clock, the wily Sone Aluko teased his way through the visitors rear-guard only to pull his left-foot shot well wide of the target.

Moments later, Ahmed Elmohamady and pantomime villain Lee Cattermole became embroiled in fisticuffs when the home player tumbled too theatrically for the tough tackling Wearsider’s liking. Any abuse handed out by Cattermole was ultimately ill-advised though as the midfielder’s afternoon would be one to forget.

With 18 played, Sunderland carved out one their only opportunities in the match. Neat combination play between Phil Bardsley and Emanuale Giaccherini eventually resulted in a low driven cross from the former. The finish didn’t match the delightful build up play though as Ignacio Scocco blazed over from just 10 yards out.

The pendulum swung back in the favour of the home team and Fryatt, having already netted twice in the FA Cup this season, will only himself be able to answer how he didn’t add a third to that tally in the 25th minute. A deliciously whipped right-wing cross was begging to be headed home, but the forward couldn’t convert. Having escaped the attention of his marker, his diving effort missed the left hand post by inches.

There was to be a greater Hull City culprit than Fryatt however just after the half hour mark. Having magically turned away and been caught by Sebastian Larsson for a penalty, there was nothing bewitching about Aluko’s strike from 12 yards, a tame spot-kick that was comfortably saved by Ustari.

Some serious pouring through the history books has to be done to find the Tigers’ only previous experience of a Wembley FA Cup last four tie. Going into the break at 0-0, this would have been ample motivation for the home team’s players as the people of Hull were desperate for another London date to add to their diaries.

There was little evidence of it having the desired effect though, the second half a slow burner. Spaces began to emerge as both sides pressed for the opening goal, looking to counter the opposition with both speed and quality. Sadly, the quality wasn’t forthcoming and both managers pondered turning to the cavalry on their benches, the ineffective Yannick Sagbo hauled off for George Boyd.

The former Peterborough United player’s introduction was a positive one. In the 62nd minute, no Sunderland player tracked Meyler’s surging sprint from midfield. Cutting inside onto his left foot, his cross-shot couldn’t quite be converted by Boyd who had John O’Shea for close company.

Head that: Hull's Rob Koren fails to retrieve Tom Huddlestone's over-hit free-kick.
Head that: Hull’s Rob Koren fails to retrieve Tom Huddlestone’s over-hit free-kick.

The staunch resistance was finally broken with 68 gone though when set-piece specialist Tom Huddlestone planted a free-kick onto the head of the towering Curtis Davies. Having found his own scoring boots of late, he rose majestically and the powerful header soared into the top-left hand corner.

There was twice the reason to be jubilant shortly after as midfield maestro Meyler pounced on a blocked Cattermole clearance to punish his former employers. Running through on goal unopposed, there was plenty of time to overthink where to strike the ball, but the Irishman had the presence of mind to roll his shot past the despairing Ustari into the bottom left-hand corner. The celebration that followed was a memorable one. Alan Pardew had a sore head thinking about it.

At 2-0 with 18 minutes left, there was no looking back. Unfortunately from a Sunderland perspective neither did Cattermole. Blindly side-footing the ball towards his own goal with 77 played, it was silver service for a player of Fryatt’s calibre. Making the most of his unexpected fine-dining experience, the 28 year old collected the ball on the edge of the Sunderland box, picked his spot and watched the net ripple with satisfaction.

There was almost time for a fourth when Meyler – uncharacteristically losing his cool – swung wildly at a chance from 25 yards but the miss proved academic.

There will now be further blood, sweat and tears for those in black and amber stripes as they seek an elusive cup final. Next up: a galvanised league one Sheffield United side in a fiery Yorkshire derby on 12th/13th April. In a year that’s seen Hull announced as the capital of culture for 2017, some cultured football may just help them attain the Holy Grail in May.

Teams:

Hull City (4-2-3-1): McGregor, Rosenior, Chester, Davies (c), Figueroa, Meyler, Huddlestone, El Mohamady (Quinn, 81), Aluko (Koren, 67), Sagbo (Boyd, 58), Fryatt.

Unused subs: Harper, Bruce, Faye, Henderson.

Scorers: Davies (68), Meyler (72), Fryatt, (77)

Sunderland (4-2-3-1) Ustari, Bardsley, Vergini, O’Shea (c), Dossena, Cattermole, Colback, Larsson, Scocco (Borini, 67), Giaccherini (Johnson, 67) Fletcher.

Unused subs: Mannone, Celustka, Cuellar, Bridcutt, Ki Sung-Yeung.

Referee: Mr C. Pawson

Man of the Match: Davies

Ben teken the foot off the gas or can the Villa just not pass?

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Another Christmas slump sees the Villans slip to a forth consecutive defeat.

Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. It is an opportunity to mark baby Jesus’s birthday, relax with family and tuck into Mum’s finest pigs in blankets. If you’re an Aston Villa fan however, the festive period has lost its shine ever so slightly. Few need reminding of the carnage of Christmas 2012 but in case you were too busy gorging on mince pies, the following video may help jog the memory.

Since the beginning of advent this term, Villa have accumulated just 3 points from 5 Premier League games, a largely fortuitous win on the road at Southampton back on December 4th . Defeat at a combative, if not bulldozing Stoke City outfit last Saturday and a spineless home performance against Crystal Palace on Thursday, has left the Brummie fans calling for the head of Paul Lambert. Sure, Villa are missing the influential presence of Ron Vlaar, the goals of Christian Benteke and long-term injuries to the likes of Jores Okore and Charles N’Zogbia have been unsettling but countless problems remain unsolved. It is my purpose to draw those to the surface.

1) “The lads are doing just fine …”

says Paul Lambert time and again. It’s a great pity that the fans’ bank balances are not looking quite so healthy. Over the festive period the games come thick and fast, requiring the spectator to shed out £70 in 2 days should they attend both the Palace and Swansea matches. The pattern of play is dour, a passing sequence regularly beginning with Ciaran Clark, finding its way to Fabian Delph before some 20 passes later arriving back at the feet of goalkeeper, Brad Guzan. It bears an uncanny resemblance to the England national side who haplessly fail to unlock the door of opposition defences at major world tournaments. What arguably aggravates the home fans even more than the mundane playing style though is the manager’s stubborn refusal to admit that his team were not good enough. There are a finite number of times the same clichés can be used, and patience is wearing very thin.

2) Monotonous Midfield

Barry Bannan secured a move to Crystal Palace in the summer months and in his absence, several Villa players have been rehearsing his signature over-hit Hollywood passes. The usually neat and tidy Ashley Westwood has been the main culprit sending set pieces harmlessly over attackers’ heads while inexplicably picking out opponents. The former Crewe man admitted that he had not “hit the heights” of his debut Premier League season in mid-November and a sensational sweeping strike against West Brom aside, his performances have been lacklustre.

Delph meanwhile has continued to establish himself as one of Villa’s better players with his no-nonsense tackling style and marauding midfield runs. Even he has found himself stifled of late however, Villa too often camped outside their own 18 yard box for him to make a positive impact. When the team are in possession, he seems hurried to manufacture something and is quickly becoming accomplished at losing the ball when looking to dribble past an opponent.  Against top half teams it’s been no picnic just to keep the ball either, the Villa defenders harangued by forwards when they’d rather have ample time to hand around a basket of salmon and dill sandwiches.

Lambert prefers to play with a midfield 3 and because of this it is disconcerting that Villa have the 2nd worse passing percentage in the division. With the extra man in the heart of midfield, possession should be quickly claimed and more easily recycled. However, Villa still struggle to keep the ball unless it is being rolled along the back line. You’d be hard pushed to find many worse passers of a football than Yacouba Sylla and Karim El Ahmadi. The pair, renowned for their willing industry, can make sideways balls look troublesome and although the latter does weigh in with the occasional goal, is finding himself unpopular among the Villa ‘not so’ faithful.

3) Where’s the width?

As already suggested, Lambert favours selecting a robust midfield 3 and this can hinder any threat in wide areas for the claret and blue. The Scot has fiddled about with the formation throughout the season, initially preferring wing backs in Bacuna and Luna before reverting to 4-5-1/4-3-3 systems, when flaws became exposed in their defensive capabilities. In the last couple of fixtures, a more conventional 4-4-2 formation has also been trialed without success. Marc Albrighton has returned to the team on the right side of midfield with the goal-shy Andi Weimann slotting in on the left. Having suffered from various ailments over the course of a most miserable 24 months, Albrighton is showing glimpses of quality that earned him praise during the Martin O’Neill reign. He’s direct, happy to swing in an early cross or equally eager to knock the ball past his opposite number. Teaming up with the marginalised Matt Lowton down the Villa right seems the solitary source of attacking threat at this moment in time.

4) Shoot on Sight Policy

Aleksander Tonev joined Villa with high hopes having been recommended by fellow Bulgarian and former Villa captain, Stiliyan Petrov. His first few months in Birmingham have been most forgettable though and is fortunate that a montage of his most embarrassing goal attempts is yet to have been created. In principle, a shoot on sight policy is no bad thing; keeping the goalkeeper on their toes particularly during the winter months may force the odd mistake. It is essential to hit the target however. Currently it is only the Villa ballboys being overworked as they retrieve his wild drives from the Holte End rafters.  In Tonev’s defence, he’s not the only player to send his shots closer to the corner flag than somewhere between the sticks. Delph is occasionally over-zealous in pulling the trigger when disgruntled murmurings start up around the ground. Weimann too has been known to send his goal attempts into orbit but is hardly flying high right now.

5) Post-Boxing Day Sales: All Beards Must Go

Villa have been far from razor sharp and though unlikely, their poor performances may have something to do with a sudden growth of facial hair. A trio of regulars have sported a rugged complexion this season but the macho look has failed to strike any fear into their opponents. More is known of summer import, Antonio Luna’s beard than his defensive credentials thanks to the endeavour of the parody twitter account @LUNAS_BEARD. Nathan Baker is another to have braced himself for the cold snap by pulling up his winter furs. Whether it has made the no-nonsense centre back less streamlined is difficult to say, but Baker is two yards short of the speed needed to keep pace with the Premier League’s finest. The third and final under-performer to have let nature take its course is Andi Weimann. Having signed an improved summer deal, the wing-forward is yet to recapture his spark that saw him form a fearsome partnership with Benteke last season. Weimann anticipated my warning and decided that a fresh face was needed for the Palace match but still couldn’t find his scoring boots in the loss to the Eagles. The Austrian wide-man volleyed at Speroni when he had time to take an extra touch before ballooning over a cut back from just inside the area.

Nobody was expecting immediate revolution as was nobody anticipating consistency with Villa. However, having seized a get out of jail-free card at the end of last-term, it would have been pleasing to see the Villans make their way around the board unscathed and collected their £200 for passing go. As it is they’ve struggled to deal with the rigours of the property market and the price of selling key personnel over the last few seasons has proved an immensely costly one.