Aston Villa 1 Fulham 1
The unbeaten run goes on but, for the first time this season, Aston Villa failed to meet expectations. This result felt like a defeat and Villa cannot complain.
The tactics they used to secure draws away to Arsenal and Chelsea were used successfully by Fulham to secure a draw here.
These are strange times for Villa. The results are invariably better than the performances and the sense of optimism owes more to the identity of the manager and the arrival of a new owner, rather than what is happening on the pitch.
Villa no longer look comfortable playing a game of brinksmanship. One day, it will all go spectacularly wrong.
"We didn't play well and we got what we deserved," O'Neill said. "We remain unbeaten and that's as much as we could have taken out of it. The players know we didn't play well.
"We should have done better, we were unable to capitalise on anything today. It wasn't the best of games. I am very disappointed. We will have to do much, much better."
That is true, but one is still left with the feeling that if Villa can remain unbeaten for nine matches with what is essentially David O'Leary's squad, how much better they will do after O'Neill is let loose in the transfer market in January.
Villa missed Gavin McCann, out through injury, more than they might have expected, and Milan Baros up front is a shadow of the player who finished Euro 2004 as the leading scorer and who won a European Cup winners' medal with Liverpool the season after. "Milan is a quality player and will come good," Juan Pablo Angel, his striking partner, said. But Angel would not be expected to say anything else.
Perceptions remain that Baros is not comfortable playing for Villa, is struggling to shake off the injury that dogged him during the World Cup and lacks the subtlety that makes Angel so impressive and so vital.
Angel played well, without looking as if he would score. Even when Villa gained a penalty, in the 26th minute, after Liam Rosenior was adjudged to have fouled Stiliyan Petrov, Angel allowed captain Gareth Barry to take the kick. Barry smashed the ball home but Chris Coleman, the Fulham manager, was less than impressed with the decision to award a penalty. "I was very disappointed — it was never a penalty," Coleman said. "I don't blame Rosenior."
However, Rosenior had handled the ball inside the penalty area during an earlier incident and escaped punishment. Justice was done - eventually.
"Collectively it was a good team performance from Fulham," Coleman, clearly watching a different match, said. "We didn't play great football but we tried to do something. It was never going to be easy but we kept chipping away and tried to play on the counter-attack."
That policy worked when Fulham equalised, against the run of play, on the stroke of half time. Tomasz Radzinski found space to cross the ball for Moritz Volz to volley home, unmarked, at the far post.
This goal had more in common with those that Villa conceded last season. For the most part this season, Villa have defended well but this was sloppy. It effectively denied Villa what would have been a deserved, if laboured, victory.
The best player on the pitch was Zat Knight, the Villa supporter, whose defensive performance for Fulham did much to frustrate Villa. Only when Gabriel Agbonlahor was given space did Villa look exciting but, as Fulham retreated and Villa ran out of ideas, he became an increasingly isolated figure.
There were debuts for Isaiah Osbourne, an 18-year-old midfield player, and for Chris Sutton, an experienced striker, but there was never a feeling that Villa were going to win or even impress.
Steve McClaren, the England head coach, had left long before the end. He would have been impressed with Agbonlahor and maybe Barry but might have wondered why Villa can look so organised against Arsenal and Chelsea and so shabby against Tottenham Hotspur and Fulham. O'Neill, also baffled, has the advantage of the January transfer window, which cannot come quickly enough.
The Villa manager is tactically adept and has the ability to motivate players, even those who were once disillusioned, but there is only so much he can do at present.
Villa have won only one Premiership match out of their past six, have secured 15 points from nine matches, and have scored only 11 goals. The optimism remains — and rightly so — but there is still the feeling that a defeat, a wake-up call, is just around the corner.
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