BARCLAYS PREMIER LEAGUE
Aston Villa’s penchant for leaving it late extended to the very last Premier League game of the year as Martin O’Neill’s Champions League hopefuls ended 2008 in the Premier League top four.
However, if Villa are to achieve their lofty ambitions into 2009 then they will require a vast improvement on an inept display which was far removed from their fine form over the past 12 months.
An 88th-minute Kamil Zayatte own goal gifted O’Neill’s off-colour claret and blues their fourth straight Premier League away win before Villa survived a stoppage-time penalty scare.
Ongoing injuries to captain Martin Laursen and fellow defender Carlos Cuellar meant Zat Knight and Nigel Reo-Coker kept their places in an unchanged line-up from the Boxing Day draw against Arsenal, with Gabriel Agbonlahor spearheading a 4-5-1 formation.
Hull manager Phil Brown, however, rang the changes after Friday’s humiliating 5-1 defeat to Manchester City by dropping Marlon King, Geovanni, Dean Windass, Dean Marney, and George Boateng, replacing them with Sam Ricketts, Richard Garcia, Nicky Barmby, Daniel Cousin and Peter Halmosi.
It was a tale of two intervals four days ago with Brown shaming his players during a public on-pitch team-talk at Eastlands, while O’Neill and his coaching staff were accused by Arsenal boss Arsene Wenger of influencing the referee during the half-time break at Villa Park.
Thankfully, all of the talking points last night were confined to the field.
Living up to their nickname, the Tigers came roaring out at Villa during the first 20 minutes and were controversially denied a fifth-minute opener by referee Steve Bennett for an alleged foul on goalkeeper Brad Friedel.
The American veteran was nudged out of the way too easily by Barmby, who scrambled in the loose ball under pressure from Reo-Coker, and Friedel breathed a sigh of relief when the diminutive striker was penalised.
Hull favoured the in-your-face approach that Villa have made their speciality this season and Bernard Mendy’s dangerous cross from the right after a burst past Luke Young eluded Halmosi’s late surge into the six yard box by mere inches.
It took Villa until midway through the opening period to settle down when Gareth Barry headed over James Milner’s right-wing cross at the far post after Ashley Young was clipped by Zayatte.
Hull retained the upper hand, however, and Curtis Davies was happy to see his headed clearance from Ian Ashbee’s dangerous cross land marginally the right side of Friedel’s crossbar, from Villa’s point of view.
Zayatte, having been booked for an earlier foul on Agbonlahor, was given a stern talking to by the referee for another trip on the speedy striker, who might have been better advised to stay on his feet and exploit the space.
Barry was also fortunate to avoid being sent off early in the second-half when he was cautioned for tripping Mendy before escaping punishment for criticising the match official’s failure to offer Villa more protection.
O’Neill’s away-day specialists were having a rare off day on the road and Stilyan Petrov was yellow-carded for dissent on the hour mark.
A team, which for the most part, had seemed so composed at the back, comfortable in possession and capable going forward against the Gunners were anything but against the Tigers.
So panicky were Villa after the interval that an unknowing observer would have thought it were they and not Hull who were entering the match with the Premier League’s joint worst defensive record, having conceded 11 goals in their last three games.
The hosts just could not capitalise on their visitors’ ineptitude, although it was not for the want of trying, with off target efforts from Michael Turner and Ian Ashbee and a blocked Barmby header the most they could muster.
For Hull’s ex-Villa goalkeeper Boaz Myhill, it could not have been a more comfortable first reunion with his gloves serving only to protect his hands from the cold rather than his goal from any threat.
However, just when the travelling Villa fans would have gone home happy with a point Ashley Young’s probing cross from the right-wing was accidentally diverted in at the near post by Zayatte under pressure from Agbonlahor.
There was still time for some last-gasp drama when referee Bennett seemed to point to the spot after Ashley Young jumped with his arms in the air as a Turner header brushed the bar, only to change his mind and rightly give a goalkick rather than a penalty for handball.
Aston Villa ride their luck to regain top-four place
HULL CITY 0 ASTON VILLA 1
BARCLAYS PREMIER LEAGUE