ASTON VILLA 1 WEST HAM UNITED 1
When Archimedes jumped in and out of the bath having made the enlightening realisation that it was possible to calculate the volume of irregular objects it became forever known as the Eureka moment.
Now that Aston Villa have finally leapt in and out of the Champions League chase following the enlightening realisation that it is virtually impossible to finish in the top four it shall be termed the Europa moment.
For Saturday’s familiar Villa Park stalemate against West Ham United was surely the juncture when Villa made the discovery that they are now aiming for the re-branded Europa League, the new name for the Uefa Cup. Like the Greek scholar Archimedes, having dipped their toes in the water Villa now understand the theory of displacement.
Martin O’Neill has been a master at putting a brave face on Villa’s challenge in recent weeks and has largely been justified in doing so given the encouraging improvement in form if not fortunes. However, even the manager was forced to concede that Villa’s failure to see off Gianfranco Zola’s Hammers from a position of strength had left his team relying on favours from Arsenal’s opponents.
Even without playing in the Premier League at the weekend – instead exiting the FA Cup at the semi-final stage against Chelsea – the Gunners maintained a firm seven-point grip on fourth place. There is no point Villa depending on the teams facing Arsene Wenger’s men, albeit a list which still includes Liverpool, Manchester United and Chelsea, to give them a helping hand in the run-in.
Especially when Villa, stuck in a downward spiral of 11 winless games, have forgotten how to help themselves, particularly at Villa Park which has still witnessed only five league wins this term.
“If we could have won, we would have been back in with a chance,” said O’Neill. “Our fixtures are difficult, but maybe Arsenal would have been under more pressure going to Liverpool on Tuesday had we won.
“Had this result happened in mid-season, we could have brushed it aside and made up for it away from home.
“But it is now going to be a very difficult task for us. We need help from other sources, but we really needed to have won.”
Indeed, the Europa League now represents the height of Villa’s immediate ambitions given that, although they regularly raise the roof at Villa Park, they still haven’t fathomed how to use home advantage to smash through the top four ceiling.
Villa, according to their manager, still enjoy running out in front of their own supporters, and so it seemed as the fillip of an early Emile Heskey goal allowed them to reprise an attacking brand of football described as “exhilarating” by O’Neill.
Heskey’s arrival at Villa Park, primarily with the stated aim of qualifying for Champions League football, has coincided with a slump which despite his debut winner at Portsmouth has seen Villa tumble out of the Uefa Cup, FA Cup and top four.
What was only his second goal in a Villa shirt, and first at home, has come too late to significantly alter the course of the current campaign, although the England striker will hope that it raises his reputation among cynical supporters in time for next season.
Heskey’s clinical finish to turn in James Milner’s assist from a potentially offside position after Gareth Barry’s break, gave Villa the perfect start on 11 minutes, only for the former Wigan Athletic targetman to later be afflicted by the profligacy of his team-mates.
When Mark Noble’s ill-advised backpass prompted Heskey to slide a shot against the post in the first-half it was an instinctive attempt requiring little thought, but when he latched onto John Carew’s improvised scoop after the interval he made it too easy for West Ham goalkeeper Robert Green to thwart him.
Heskey was not the worst culprit, however, for that dubious honour fell to strike partner Carew who somehow contrived to waste a point blank range header from a cross by Ashley Young, who like Barry, Milner and Stiliyan Petrov, also all came close but not close enough.
West Ham, having forced Villa’s No?1 Brad Friedel into action at various stages with strikes from Junior Stanislas, David Di Michele, Mark Noble and Luis Boa Morte, eventually equalised five minutes from time thanks to Diego Tristan’s header.
It was a goal which had a similar element of fortune to Milner’s deflected winner off Lucas Neill at Upton Park in December with Tristan directing a Keiron Dyer shot destined for the North Stand into Friedel’s net with a decisive back post touch.
To compound Villa’s misery referee Rob Styles, who had already left O’Neill exasperated by insisting the home team change to an all-white kit to avoid a colour clash caused by the visitors, rejected a late penalty appeal when James Tomkins handled under pressure from Carew.
Scorers: Heskey (11) 1-0, Tristan (85) 1-1.
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Friedel, L Young, Davies, Cuellar, Shorey; Milner (Gardner, 81), Petrov, Barry, A Young; Heskey (Delfouneso, 71), Carew. Substitutes: Guzan, Sidwell, Knight, Salifou, Reo-Coker.
WEST HAM (4-4-2): Green, Tomkins, Upson, Collins (Dyer, 33), Ilunga; Neill, Boa Morte, Stanislas (Nsereko 74), Noble; Di Michele (Sears, 81), Tristan. Substitutes: Lastuvka, Lopez, Payne, Hines.
Referee: Rob Styles (Hampshire).
Bookings: Villa – A Young (dissent), Petrov (foul); West Ham – Noble (foul), Boa Morte (unsportsmanlike conduct), Upson (foul).