PREMIER LEAGUE: Aston Villa 4 Bolton Wanderers 2
Aston Villa returned to fourth position in the Premier League with a goal-laden victory which was far removed from their recent offerings at Villa Park.
Gabriel Agbonlahor claimed a brace, Ashley Young scored with a deflected strike and Kevin Davies headed an own goal to put Villa back in the Champions League places.
Villa’s scoring streak - and their best football - was sandwiched between two goals from Bolton, who took an early lead through Johan Elmander and grabbed a late consolation from Davies.
In an open and entertaining counter, in stark contrast to Villa’s frustrating scoreless stalemate with Fulham in their previous league game at home, Agbonlahor and Young were a joy to behold.
Upon bursting onto the scene, Agbonlahor was known for his pace alone, a one-trick pony as it were, who lacked the touch, poise and footballing brain required of top-class players.
However, if his physical speed is a source of nightmares for opponents, the rapidity of his progress from raw teenager to fully-fledged top-flight footballer has been a dream for Villa supporters.
Agbonlahor might not be the finished product yet - and manager Martin O’Neill concedes there is still room for improvement - but his finishing has come on in leaps and bounds.
An early Agbonlahor might have misjudged Martin Laursen’s long ball upfield on 25 minutes, allowing it to bounce awkwardly off some part of his anatomy and probably trickle out for a throw-in.
Today’s version managed to control the pass with his head, hold off an edge-of-the-area challenge from Bolton’s Andy O’Brien and rifle in an unstoppable volley with his supposedly weaker left foot.
By then, Villa had fallen behind to another exquisite piece of finishing as Elmander made a mockery of the Trotters’ route one reputation with a sublime back-heeled flick from Davies’ 17th-minute cross.
Villa stepped up the pressure as the first half wore on and it was only a matter of time before a Bolton back-line who conceded four in last season’s corresponding fixture would buckle under the attacking onslaught.
In fact it was one of their own, striker Davies, who handed the hosts the initiative when the presence of Laursen on his shoulder was sufficient to panic him into heading a Gareth Barry cross into his own net.
That was on 40 minutes, although had referee Lee Probert taken the trouble to familiarise himself with his rule-book Villa might have been 4-1 rather than 2-1 up at the interval.
The official’s indecision was final as he failed to award two blatant penalty-kicks in the closing stages of the first-half.
Greta Rafn Steinsson made no attempt to play the ball when he illegally impeded Young with a horrible challenge just inside the Bolton box.
Then, while Villa were still fuming about that non-award, Gary Cahill committed an even clearer act of cheating which went unpunished.
Cahill remains a popular figure at Villa Park following the former youth-teamer’s move to the Reebok Stadium almost a year ago.
However, the Villa old boy did himself no favours by deliberately handling Barry’s cross and then claiming the ball struck him in the face, even though the gullible referee bought his play-acting.
Had Villa not been at their attacking best after the break, then O’Neill might have offered more than a wry chuckle about the official in his post-match analysis.
As it were, Agbonlahor and Young delivered an emphatic message to England coach Fabio Capello that he might as well book their seats for South Africa 2010 now to get a discount on the flights.
O’Neill mentioned Young in the same breath as Barcelona superstar Lionel Messi in the build-up to the game and there was the worry he meant messy with a ‘y’ as the winger was wasteful early on.
However, Young’s ability to pick opponents apart with quick feet and devastating delivery suggests that his manager’s comparisons with world-class peers are not as far-fetched as they might seem.
A consequence of the former Watford youngster’s burgeoning status is that teams are doubling up on him in a desperate attempt to contain his threat.
It does not necessarily work. Young’s balance left the two markers that Bolton had assigned to him in disarray as his perfectly arced ball was nodded in by Agbonlahor on 67 minutes.
The two attackers are the best of friends on and off the field and at a time when sharing presents is commonplace, Agbonlahor returned the gift of a goal 11 minutes later.
This time Agbonlahor latched onto Barry’s ball down the left and intelligently waited for support from Young who had no hesitation in blasting his pal’s pass into the net via Cahill.
Bolton grabbed an 86th minute consolation when Davies made amends with another header into the bottom left corner, this time out-climbing Carlos Cuellar to beat Brad Friedel. It was of little concern, however, to Villa whose 31-point haul has moved them back above Arsenal into the most prominent positions.