Villa victorious in war of nerves
On FA Cup quarter-final weekend, it was not the world-famous, big-eared tin jug that was the great leveller at the Madejski Stadium, but simple, old-fashioned tension. That one of the Premier League's perpetual nail-biters, Aston Villa, emerged triumphant from this relegation shoot-out with Reading, was as much due to an unusually steady hand and dry brow as it was to their superior quality in the final third of the pitch.
This was a vital win, not just taking advantage of Wigan's weekend away from the top-flight's survival battle (the Latics' drop into the relegation zone tempered by reaching the last four of the FA Cup) but putting daylight between Paul Lambert's side and the Royals. The gap is now at four points and while it would take a brave man to say Villa are safe yet, they aided their cause no end by digging a bigger hole for one of their chief rivals.
It was also a day for highlighting differences, even if it began with the teams ostensibly in the same boat. These are two clubs with unmistakeably different expectations of them, even if the Randy Lerner tap has slowed to an occasional drip and Royals owner Anton Zingarevich appears poised to invest. Reading's positivity has been one of the features of this Premier League season - they can afford to be as the plucky outsider with nothing to lose, even if Brian McDermott said that "we've had a lot of good days in past three-and-a-bit years, and the last three weeks have been hard". Villa's gradual decline in recent seasons makes today's situation no less painful - being a European Cup-winning club means they retain a certain hauteur.
The underdog card was something McDermott stealthily played in his programme notes, gently reminding Villa of the greater pressure on them, calling them "a club with great history and tradition" and "a big following". The Reading boss was certainly right about that last part. Villa were strongly backed here in Berkshire, but if the 2,000-plus travellers from Birmingham kept a stiff upper lip during proceedings, the underlying anguish soared to the surface at the end, with the final whistle celebrated like a goal.
"If we keep doing what we're doing, we'll be alright," was Lambert's conclusion to his post-match press conference. It's not the first time he's said it but this time, it seemed less like blind faith as there had been substance to back his words. He had made four changes to the line-up that had started Monday's home defeat to Manchester City, a reaction to facing "a different type of game than against your Arsenals or your Manchester Citys."
One change had been enforced. At the final whistle against City, there was a lingering sense that one of the game's final acts could have been the most costly, as the tigerish Fabian Delph picked up the yellow card that would keep him out of this game and next week's equally nerve-shredding encounter with QPR.
It was the catalyst for a full debut for Yacouba Sylla at the Madejski. His first major involvement in the middle of the pitch was a rude awakening, as he dawdled a half-second and was swiftly dispossessed by Alex Pearce. Yet to his credit the French youngster settled, distributing the ball neatly and almost crowning his debut in the early stages of the second half with a raking drive from outside the area, which skimmed the angle of post and bar with Stuart Taylor well beaten. Lambert later described Sylla as "outstanding".
Despite this unexpected positive, it was further up the pitch that the game was won. The feeling that Villa are fettered by a soft centre is one that will almost certainly endure to the end of the season, but the front three of Christian Benteke, Andreas Weimann and Gabriel Agbonlahor have the shared qualities to cover a multitude of trespasses and justify Lambert's continued bullishness. Agbonlahor smashed home the winner on the stroke of half-time after Weimann hit the post. Meanwhile, Benteke was central to events from the moment he announced his importance with an 11th-minute header that crashed off Taylor's crossbar, and he caused Reading myriad problems with his runs through the centre even before his 33rd-minute equaliser, calmly sidefooted home from a Weimann cutback, with the aid of a slight deflection.
This was seconds after Reading had taken the lead, and it was the goal that indelibly changed the game. The home side began the match looking the stronger of the two, with Brad Guzan forced to palm an Adam Le Fondre header from Jobi McAnuff's cross around the post in just the second minute. Villa shook like a palm tree in the wind in the opening minutes, with Matt Lowton carded for an absurdly tardy challenge on pumped-up skipper McAnuff, who was again involved when his team hit the front. When Hope Akpan cutely flicked McAnuff's cross towards goal, Nathan Baker – trying to clear an effort off the line that wasn't even on target - miskicked into his own net.
The script said Villa would crumble - instead, they roared back in a manner dismissing observers who suggest that they lack belief. "I've never sensed that," Lambert said. "We've gone a few goals up and we've been pegged back, with a bit of naivety at points. Nathan kept at it; I thought he was exceptional. It was a massive game, a big pressure game, but the players don't look as if they're lacking in confidence."
They also have attacking talent that can make light of major flaws, as it did here, for Villa never looked entirely in control. On the other hand, it has been abundantly clear in recent weeks, if anyone needed reminding, that a Reading at half-pelt is an impotent one. McDermott's men could do with a touch of luck too. Ten minutes into the second period the excellent McAnuff's low cross was tapped in at the back post by Noel Hunt, only for the linesman to raise his flag.
"It was very close," McDermott reflected, "and he's given the benefit of the doubt to the defender, but let's talk about the football. You have to take the decision-maker out of the game." It is unlikely Reading will be able to do that in daunting upcoming visits to Old Trafford and the Emirates. Villa's best weapons may just be able to, though.