Aston Villa 0 Portsmouth 0
If Aston Villa supporters were scratching their heads as their side lined up for the match in a new-look 3-5-2 formation, then they were positively perplexed at the final whistle when one of their number threw a coin at assistant linesman Phil Sharp.
Villa supporters are not normally known for their misdemeanours although the game, ironically, was followed by an event just a few miles from the ground where a group of hooligans known as the Villa Hardcore were launching of a book about their exploits.
But the behaviour of one fan behind the dug-out will long overshadow the afternoon’s football or manager Martin O’Neill’s surprise decision to drop his two full backs, Nicky Shorey and Luke Young.
Instead, he played a three-man defence made up of Carlos Cuellar, Curtis Davies and Martin Laursen which also allowed him the luxury of being able to start midfielder James Milner.
O’Neill had started all seven previous Premier League matches with an unchanged side playing his traditional 4-4-2 formation, but had spoken of his concern over the strength and sheer physical presence of Harry Redknapp’s Portsmouth side.
As well as finally finding a way to play both Davies and Cuellar in the same XI, O’Neill was blessed to have striker Gabriel Agbonlahor back after suffering a tight hamstring with England Under-21s in midweek.
Midfielder Steve Sidwell also made a welcome return to the bench after missing much of this campaign with a knee injury while Villa faced old boys David James and Peter Crouch, now key components of Redknapp’s side.
From the outset, it was apparent that chances would be limited as Agbonlahor managed his first attempt on goal on eight minutes.
Three minutes later, Ashley Young set up John Carew only for his right-footed shot to ping over the bar and then Davies got on to the end of a pass from Laursen following a Gareth Barry free kick. The defender’s right-footed shot flew skywards, however – and it was another chance squandered.
Crouch is enjoying the best strike partnership in the top flight this season with Jermain Defoe but Pompey’s “Little and Large” found Villa’s new-look defence equal to everything they threw at them – Laursen and Brad Friedel combining to keep out Crouch’s 20th-minute effort while Defoe was limited to only two chances in the entire game.
The only time Pompey really threatened was when Armand Traore hooked a Crouch cross at Friedel but the ball bounced off the goalkeeper and away off the post.
Over the years, Redknapp has attempted to sign both Barry - during an unhappy spell under David O’Leary - and Nigel Reo-Coker in the days when the £8 million former Wimbledon star carried a £150,000 price tag.
And how he must have wished he had those players in his side. For all the strength and power of his team they lacked creativity while referee Mike Riley was becoming significantly exasperated at both Sean Davis and Papa Bouba Diop’s attempts to chop down Young at every opportunity.
In fact, Davis finally got his marching orders on 77 minutes, having first been booked for a challenge on Young and then a hamfisted attempt to fell Stiliyan Petrov by tugging his shirt.
Both teams had chances to snatch a winner. Reo-Coker flew a ball in across the face of the Pompey net while Barry pulled off the tackle of the game to ensure Defoe did not increase his tally of eight league goals.
In the closing stages, Milner shot straight at James causing the keeper Villa fans once dubbed ‘Calamity’ to drop the ball but this wasn’t Villa’s day and the rebound was safely smothered. Young then fired a perfect header over the bar after being put through by Carew while Petrov in turn set up the Norwegian striker but again his effort glanced off the bar.
And all the attention in the final seconds was drawn to the unsavoury incident on the sidelines.
ASTON VILLA (3-5-2): Friedel; Cuellar, Davies, Laursen (L Young, 88); Barry, Milner, Reo-Coker, Petrov, A Young; Agbonlahor, Carew. Substitutes: Guzan (gk), Sidwell, Harewood, Knight, Shorey, Gardner.
PORTSMOUTH (4-4-2): James; Johnson, Campbell, Distin, Pamarot; Little (Utaka, 68), Bouba Diop, Davis, Traore (Belhadj, 76); Crouch, Defoe (Mvuemba, 78). Subs: Ashdown, Hreidarsson, Thomas, Kanu.
Referee: Mike Riley (W Yorkshire).
Bookings: Portsmouth – Johnson, Bouba Diop (both fouls).
Sending-off: Portsmouth – Davis (second bookable offence).