STEVE Sidwell endured a rollercoaster of emotions at Villa Park yesterday.
The Aston Villa midfielder had marked his first league start in claret-and-blue, following his summer move from Chelsea, with a first-half equaliser.
However, the former Reading player suffered a dramatic tumble from hero to zero when his dreadful back-pass handed Tuncay Sanli the opportunity to fire home an 89th-minute winner for Middlesbrough.
The result condemned Martin O’Neill’s team to a second consecutive Premier League defeat at the hands of a side from the North East and it was the first time that Villa have lost to Middlesbrough in six top-flight matches.
Yesterday’s outcome also harmed the Uefa Cup hopefuls’ audacious aspirations of breaking into the Premier League’s top four. With Arsenal and Manchester United on the horizon, the omens are not good.
A draw looked to be the likely and correct result, Tuncay having put Middlesbrough ahead following an error in front of goal by Nicky Shorey in the 34th minute but Sidwell equalised for Villa three minutes later in a game played in a thoroughly flat atmosphere.
O’Neill had reverted to a more familiar starting line-up after he had fielded a cast of understudies in the Czech Republic on Thursday night. The Villa manager made five changes to the side that beat Slavia Prague but the most notable omission was John Carew, after the Norwegian had failed a late fitness test on a hip injury. Luke Young also missed out on an opportunity to face his former employers because of a thigh injury.
On a rain-lashed Remembrance Sunday, it was the home side that made the more encouraging start.
There were faint appeals for a penalty in the eighth minute when Gabriel Agbonlahor was upended by Chris Riggott’s tackle and, with Ashley Young lurking, the England man could only strike an effort off the back of his grounded team-mate.
Middlesbrough created several opportunities of their own in the opening stages. In the 15th minute, Justin Hoyte intercepted a Young-bound pass from James Milner and charged forward to set up Stewart Downing for a long-range effort.
However, it was still Villa who had their noses narrowly in front, Ross Turnbull saving a Gareth Barry shot low down before a trademark Young free-kick had to be tipped over by the youthful Boro goalkeeper.
The resulting corner was nodded narrowly wide of the target by Martin Laursen.
Despite these chances, the visitors from Teesside took the lead in the 34th minute. Downing had been a particular thorn in the side of Villa and it was Gareth Southgate’s homegrown hero who created the opener.
Downing’s cross was poorly dealt with by Shorey and Tuncay was on hand to fire home from seven yards.
Victory looked in danger of falling into Middlesbrough’s hands so Villa needed to hit back immediately and it took them three minutes to do exactly that.
Following a series of blocked shots by Young and Agbonlahor, Milner’s lofted ball to the back post was nodded past Turnbull by the flame-haired head of Sidwell.
Middlesbrough should have responded just as swiftly on the stroke of half-time after a good passing move involving Hoyte, Tuncay and Alfonso Alves was wastefully hit wide by the latter.
Villa stepped up a gear in the second half on a pitch that was fast becoming increasingly more saturated from the relentless downpour.
A neat cut-back by Barry on the left byline set up Milner but his low drive was blocked by the legs of Turnbull, who also had his fingers stung by a vicious Young shot from 25 yards moments later.
O’Neill rearranged his line-up in the 70th minute following the introduction of goal-hungy Marlon Harewood for Shorey. Milner dropped into midfield, Reo-Coker was pushed to right-back and Cuellar found himself on the opposite side of Villa’s backline.
Young’s defensive duties were put to the test in the 79th minute when he was called upon to clear Chris Riggott’s solid header off the line.
It clearly was not Alves’ day as he put forward a nomination for the miss of the season.
Didier Digard’s low drive was palmed into the path of the Brazllian six yards out by Brad Friedel but the South American somehow managed to place his shot wide.
As both sides prepared to settle for a draw, disaster struck for the hosts when Tuncay pounced on Sidwell’s lapse in concentration to complete his brace.
Sidwell attempted to make amends with an injury-time header that bounced across the face of the goal but it wasn’t to be.