Aston Villa 0 Fulham 0
Gareth Barry drew a clear line under the summer collapse of his dream move to Liverpool by committing his immediate future to Aston Villa last week.
In doing so the England midfielder made a firm statement that the time of ruing missed opportunities was well and truly over.
One wonders if Barry will adhere to the same view after squandering three chances to lift Martin O’Neill’s men to third in the Premier League.
While welcoming Barry’s decision to remain at Villa Park until at least the end of the season, O’Neill admitted that guaranteeing Champions League football could convince his former captain to stay beyond next summer.
How cruelly ironic it would be therefore if, because of Barry’s profligacy, this opportunity to strengthen their grip on a top four place proves costly in the final reckoning at the start of May.
Of course, in order to miss chances the culprit must be in the appropriate position at the correct time in the first place and Villa’s 4-5-1 system relies on Barry and fellow attacking midfielder Steve Sidwell’s ability to make well-timed runs into the penalty area.
However, when Ashley Young is offering up the kind of deliveries that only a certain bearded, red-suited gentleman who drops down chimneys around this time of year can better, then his claret and blue colleagues really should accept the gifts.
Young revealed before the match that he had been practising with Fulham’s free-kick expert Jimmy Bullard during their time together on England duty in Berlin last month.
Not only did Young outshine Bullard on Saturday, his deadball deliveries
suggested he can become the natural successor to the Three Lions fading set-piece specialist David Beckham.
All of Villa’s chances – and they created enough to win three games despite O’Neill’s assertion that they should have carved out more – came firmly stamped with the Ashley Young hallmark.
Barry was responsible for spurning three of them. His first came when Villa finally warmed up midway through a bitterly cold and bitterly disappointing first-half.
Young’s measured cross from the left to the far post found Barry who climbed above Paul Konchesky to head wide when he might have been better leaving it to better-placed James Milner behind him.
Sidwell was next to spurn the supply of the England wing hopeful, apparently arriving from an advanced position, yet escaping an offside decision, to nod over from six yards with Mark Schwarzer’s goal at his mercy.
The former Chelsea midfielder was also to threaten from another Young centre later in the game straining to reach the ball, only to toe-end away from the target.
Sadly for Young his own shooting radar was out of kilter compared to his crossing as he fired an early strike into the side netting and smashed a Gabby Agbonlahor pass high over the bar before the interval, then screwed a poor second-half effort into the turf.
Still his ability to manipulate the ball with both feet and zip it over with pace and swerve had the well-drilled Fulham disarray at times after the break with Schwarzer regularly leaving his line to avert the danger.
The Cottagers keeper coped admirably considering, in his manager Roy Hodgson’s words, that Villa “laid siege” to his goal more than any opponents this season.
However, Schwarzer was fortunate that the ball squirmed to safety after he spilled Barry’s tame close range header from yet another pinpoint Young cross.
Barry was to blame again when he glanced his colleagues corner across the face of goal and wide, leaving Villa Park and manager O’Neill wondering what might have been had towering target-man John Carew been fit.
Brad Friedel, making his record-breaking 167th consecutive top flight appearance, rolled back the years to frustrate fellow American Clint Dempsey with superb saves in each half. All of which created an atmosphere of anti-climax at the final whistle.
O’Neill laughed off the smatterings of discontent from the disappointed crowd with a quick-witted one-liner that he must remind his wife and her friends not to boo in future. If only Villa’s players were as razor-sharp in front of goal.
Aston Villa (4-5-1): Friedel; Cuellar, Davies, Laursen, L Young; Milner, Petrov, Sidwell, Barry, A Young; Agbonlahor. Substitutes: Guzan, Harewood, Delfouneso, Knight, Salifou, Shorey, Gardner.
Fulham (4-4-2): Schwarzer; Pantsil, Hughes, Hangeland, Konchesky; Dempsey, Bullard, Murphy, S Davies; Johnson, Zamora (Gera 85). Substitutes: Zuberbuehler, Nevland, Gray, Etuhu, Stoor, Kallio.
Referee: Mike Jones (Cheshire).
Bookings: Fulham – Dempsey, Pantsil (both fouls).