Aston Villa 1 Middlesbrough 1

Last Thursday night they had Tony Christie in the Holte Suite helping Doug Ellis's leaving do go with a swing. On Saturday afternoon, it was Malcolm Christie stealing centre stage at the Witton End, with his first goal in two seasons.

But top of the bill at Villa Park this season is the always popular turn that goes by the name of "Penalty!"

Villa have now had eight of them in the three months since they chose to swap the ill luck of one Irishman for the good fortune of another.

And, after converting four of those spot-kicks, Gareth Barry is now Villa's joint top scorer. But, says Martin O'Neill, it's hard to recall one of them that has been worthy of the words 'cast' and 'iron' preceding it. Stiliyan Petrov's plummet to earth in front of the Holte End, just two minutes after Christie had fired Middlesbrough in front, was another classic of its genre.

Villa have now won penalties in five of their seven home league games this season. But the generally considered view was that this one did rather make up for Boro's bit of luck at the other end.

"They tell me Malcolm Christie's goal was offside," said O'Neill. "But Boro aren't pleased with our penalty so that's one at each end."

An observation shared by his opposite number Gareth Southgate, who doesn't need any Fifa coaching badge to recognise a dive when he sees one.

"Petrov was probably on his way down when Mark Schwarzer caught him," said Southgate. "But, although the

penalty was a bit of a soft decision, I've no complaints as our goal was offside and that one went for us."

"Take both goals away and it's still 0-0," said Boro's skipper, Villa old boy George Boateng, "so it's a fair draw".

Well, actually, George it wasn't. Villa, in fact, deserved their luck. They played some of their best stuff of the season and had enough chances to have scored three or more.

But there has to be a concern that, of the six league goals they have scored in the last six games, half were been Barry penalties.

No wonder O'Neill can't wait for Randy Lerner's flight from Cleveland to touch down this week to find out how much he'll get to spend in January on a new striker.

But Villa should still feel pleased with their efforts. The chances they created were all carved out by football pleasing on the eye. Isaiah Osbourne, who perhaps surprisingly kept his place as O'Neill started with a five-man midfield, was denied only by keeper Schwarzer after Angel had headed Olof Mellberg's cross back from the far post.

And another unlikely hero Wilfred Bouma tried his luck with a 30-yard left-foot screamer that brought the best out of Schwarzer.

Gavin McCann, back after suspension, then slipped a clever ball inside full-back Emmanuel Pogatetz for Barry, popping up unusually on the right. His low cross found young defender Gary Cahill just inside the six-yard box at the near post who tried a flick which flashed just past the left post.

"I should have scored, simple as that," he admitted. "I saw the play building up down the right and I just didn't think it would come as far as me."

Then came a bizarre turn of events. A fabulous turn by Gabriel Agbonlahor took out Pogatetz, a burst of speed into the box, a cross, and Barry was denied by Schwarzer at point-blank range. And, from the Boro keeper's clearing punt, they went straight up the other end and went ahead.

McCann lost control and was dispossessed by former Sunderland team-mate Julio Arca, Yakubu poked the ball through for Christie, and, although a yard offside when he received it, the former Nuneaton Borough striker swivelled well to fire home.

Villa's response was at least impressive in terms of timing. But the most diplomatic thing that could be said about Barry's equalising penalty was that Schwarzer's dive for the ball at Petrov's feet was unnecessary and gave the Bulgarian the opportunity to go down.

At half time, O'Neill switched it, reverting to 4-4-2 by putting Agbonlahor up front, Petrov on the right and Barry on the left. But the breaks would not come.

He was not helped by an unexpected enforced switch in goal after Thomas Sorensen's early second-half collision with a post after a challenge from the unwitting Pogatetz threw him off balance. But that was hardly the reason for the poor finishing at the other end.

Mellberg headed wide of Schwarzer's left post, sub Milan Baros fizzed in an off-target volley wide of his right and Agbonlahor wasted a free header before the Boro keeper almost came to Villa's assistance by punching into his own net.

But when Petrov's free kick spun off the wall safely into Schwarzer's hands, that was the last decent Villa effort. And it was visiting substitute Lee Cattermole who almost won it with a late off-target header.

ASTON VILLA (4-5-1): Sorensen (S Taylor 70); Mellberg, Ridgewell, Cahill, Bouma; Agbonlahor, McCann, Osbourne (Davis 61), Barry, Petrov; Angel (Baros 61). Subs: Whittingham, Hughes.
MIDDLESBROUGH (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Xavier, Woodgate, Huth, Pogatetz; Morrison (Cattermole 83), Boateng, A Taylor, Arca; Christie (Maccarone 77), Yakubu. Subs: Jones (gk), Parnaby, Euell
Referee: P Walton (Long Buckby, Northamptonshire)
Bookings: Villa — Barry (foul); Boro — Schwarzer (foul on Petrov for penalty), Pogatetz (collision with Sorensen), Huth (foul)
Attendance: 33,612

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