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Nov 22, 2008

Villa show credentials to gatecrash foursome

Few footballing phrases grate quite as much as 'the Big Four'. It irritates as a concept, in the dominance of its members and in its accepted part of the football lexicon. So it is with relief that perhaps the events of recent weeks will eliminate 'the Big Four' from the vocabulary. Arsenal may reduce it to a big three, but Aston Villa could expand it to a big five.

On a day when the supposedly dominant quartet's collective haul was three points and no goals - one fewer strike than Stoke City mustered, and as many points - the notion of their superiority could seem strange. For the clubs who have collapsed under the pressure of chasing them, however, they have a capacity to intimidate.

Villa, at least, are not looking petrified. Their best hope of Champions League football may rest with Arsenal's implosion, and it annoyed many in the Midlands that praise for their victory at the Emirates Stadium was rather overshadowed by criticisms of Arsene Wenger's team. Yet Villa are genuine contenders for a top-four berth. If last week's win didn't prove it, this week's draw did.

Matching Manchester United is a rarity for them. Comprehensive losses tend to be their lot whenever United venture down the M6. Whether or not they enter the private members' club at the summit, they merited their point and displayed they possess a handful of players with the calibre to play for them.

And they formed the spine of the side. In goal, Brad Friedel marked his 166th consecutive Premier League appearance, and a share of David James' record, with a clean sheet. Ahead of him, Martin Laursen and Curtis Davies led the Villa resistance, the Dane's forceful approach complementing the Englishman's elegance. In midfield, Gareth Barry's blend of competitiveness and quality meant Villa weren't outclassed. Alone in attack, Gabriel Agbonlahor prompted the question of if he is best deployed as the lone striker. Capable of occupying Nemanja Vidic and Rio Ferdinand on his own, he also claimed a penalty when the Serbian tugged him back, albeit outside the box, and Sir Alex Ferguson insisted: "He clearly got the ball."

Martin O'Neill disagreed, and in no uncertain terms, with both Ferguson and referee Chris Foy, who waved play on: "It was the main incident of the game. It was a penalty and a sending-off offence. It was too big a decision for him. It's a foul, as simple as that, and the consequences of the foul is the player has to be sent off because it's a goalscoring opportunity."

Agbonlahor's excellence aside, two key performances came, in uncharacteristic fashion, on the flanks. Ashley Young was not as his most penetrative in attack, but he made a wonderful last-gasp challenge to deny Ji-sung Park. Nigel Reo-Coker slotted in at right-back, a participant in a duel between an ersatz defender and the world's most feared winger. As Cristiano Ronaldo was removed with eight minutes to go, something that rarely happens when United are chasing victory, Reo-Coker can claim he triumphed. The merits of his grounding in midfield were apparent, too, whenever he surged forwards.

And whereas Villa had a youthful verve, it was notable that United's next generation - Rafael da Silva, Danny Welbeck, Nani and Anderson - began on the bench. It was defeat at Villa Park that prompted Alan Hansen's infamous and incorrect statement that you win nothing with kids. Nevertheless, Ferguson selected his most experienced available side.

They were required. United have been defeated at Liverpool and Arsenal and held at Chelsea. This meant that they have failed to win at each of the four major rivals. A fine defensive performance, led by Ferdinand and Vidic, averted a third defeat in that spell.

Nevertheless, a run of 14 consecutive wins against Villa was brought to a halt. "We usually play exceptionally well for half an hour, get in front and then Manchester United beat us,' said O'Neill. He noted: 'We've played all top four sides now and we've lost once. We were well beaten at Chelsea. They were magnificent on the day."

Villa were spectacular at Arsenal. But their solidity against Manchester United may have revealed more about their credentials.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Curtis Davies - He has been likened to Rio Ferdinand and this was a day when those comparisons did not look far-fetched. Davies' timing of the tackle and reading of the game were excellent.

ASTON VILLA VERDICT: This is a side that can finish in the top four, though O'Neill provoked laughter when he said: "I think we'll go on to win the league." Nevertheless, and despite a summer spending spree, their chances rest with a select group of players. John Carew apart, theirs is not a bench to scare anyone.

MANCHESTER UNITED VERDICT: United played some slick football, but they failed to score for the first time in 15 months in the Premier League. Coupled with their difficulties on their travels - just two wins in seven away league games - this result makes next week's trip to Manchester City still more significant. The absent Dimitar Berbatov was missed, with Carlos Tevez's wholehearted approach not bringing a return to form and Wayne Rooney's boom-and-bust days continue. After a glut, he is now six games without a goal.

STAYING PUT?: O'Neill was asked about the future of his two most coveted players. His answer was a tacit acceptance that Villa lack the strength in depth of their rivals, but a cause for optimism for their fans. He said: "The likes of Ashley Young and Gabby Agbonlahor are enjoying their football immensely. Here they are playing so well that when they're fit, they are in the team. That might not happen somewhere else."

RESPECT: O'Neill, his criticisms of the referee notwithstanding, praised fourth official Peter Walton. "He was right to tell me to sit down,' he said. 'I was about three-and-a-half yards from Brad Friedel at one point."

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