FOR long periods it looked like the form book would be turned on its head on a bitterly cold evening in the West Midlands but Nathaniel Clyne, Southamptonâ€™s man of the moment, enhanced his burgeoning reputation with a well-taken goal nine minutes from time to earn Ronald Koemanâ€™s side a point.
It was no more than Southampton deserved on an evening when the apathy at Aston Villa plumbed new depths. Only 25,311 turned up â€“ Villaâ€™s lowest crowd in the Premier League for 15 years â€“ and those that stayed at home had no cause to regret their decision. It was a desperately poor match. Even watching on television must have been an ordeal.
Villa, who managed to arrive for a home fixture late after their coach got stuck in what Paul Lambert described as â€œhorrendous trafficâ€, took the lead from their only shot on target. It came about after a rare mistake from Fraser Forster, who dashed out of his area for a ball that he had no chance of getting. Gabriel Agbonlahor was not going to pass up an early Christmas present and gratefully accepted the Southampton goalkeeperâ€™s gift, toe-poking the ball past him before slotting home. It was Agbonlahorâ€™s third league goal of the season and Villaâ€™s sixth in total.
The home side spent much of the remainder of the game clinging on to their lead, defending in numbers, counter-attacking sporadically and generally frustrating a Southampton team who had plenty of possession but lacked the craft and guile to break down a patched-up Villa defence.
Yet despite being on the back foot, Villa could easily have grabbed a second that might well have killed the game when Agbonlahor, following a swift raid up field, set up Andreas Weimann. The Austrian blazed his shot over the bar and the significance of that moment became clear two minutes later, when Southampton levelled.
It was a goal that summed up Southamptonâ€™s attacking ethos under Koeman and provided a measure of Clyneâ€™s self-belief. Ryan Bertrand, who was on loan at Villa during the second half of last season, got forward on the left and cut the ball back for Clyne, who timed his run so perfectly that he did not need to break his stride before sweeping a fine first-time shot, from just inside the penalty area, into the far corner of the net.
Following his England debut against Slovenia and another impressive performance against Scotland four days later, it has been quite a fortnight for Clyne all in all. â€œOne of his qualities is to play offensive, he has that freedom from the coach and it was an important goal,â€ Koeman said. â€œIn my opinion he is the best right full-back in the Premier League.â€
For Koeman, however, this was a result tinged with disappointment. Southampton, with 11 wins from their previous 12 matches, would have hoped to continue their excellent form against a Villa side missing key personnel and desperately short of confidence. Not that Koeman has lost any of his optimism about what his team, still two points ahead of Manchester City in second place, can achieve this season. â€œAfter 37 games I donâ€™t believe we will still be second in the table. But we might be third,â€ the Southampton manager said.
Although Southamptonâ€™s attacking players struggled to make much of an impression, credit must also go to Villaâ€™s makeshift but resolute central defensive partnership of Jores Okore, who was making his first club appearance in 14 months, and Ciaran Clark. â€œI thought the two young centre-backs were outstanding,â€ said Lambert, who was celebrating his 100th game in charge of Villa. – The Guardian