Sheffield United 2 Aston Villa 2
Aston Villa manager Martin O'Neill's bold attacking tactics did not bring the away win he was after, but his side still reinforced the reputation that they are hard to beat in the Steel City last night.
A second successive 2-2 draw on the road was Villa's tenth share of the spoils in 17 Premiership games this season, but it did at least bring two personal goal droughts to an end.
Summer signing Stiliyan Petrov scored his first goal for Villa (his first, in fact, since March 4) to seemingly set the visitors on their way to a comfortable win. But a spirited second-half fightback saw Stephen Quinn and Danny Webber fire struggling Sheffield United in front.
It took an equaliser from Milan Baros, his first goal since his double earned Villa a memorable safety-sealing victory over Birmingham City last April.
After 24 games without a goal for either Celtic or Villa, on the night Petrov finally broke his duck, it took just 73 seconds to arrive. And it was the return up front of Chris Sutton to partner the surprisingly retained Baros that proved the trigger.
Recalled after three games out with a calf injury, after being fed by Wilfred Bouma before a one-two with Baros in Villa's first attack, Sutton's speculative shot was blocked by Leigh Bromby. But it fell invitingly for Petrov and the Bulgarian gleefully smacked home a right-foot volley from 15 yards.
Having picked an attack-minded side, hoping to use the pace of Baros playing off Sutton's tricks and wiles, with Steven Davis and Gabriel Agbonlahor given licence to roam out in the wide areas, O'Neill got exactly the confident, lively start he was looking for. But Villa still had to hold firm under several moments of pressure from the home side.
Keith Gillespie's cross set up an early chance for Rob Hulse, which the former West Bromwich Albion striker stabbed wide. And, when Sheffield boy Gary Cahill clumsily brought down Quinn right on the edge of the box, Phil Jagielka fired his free kick into the wall.
Jagielka was a lot closer, in fact, with a speculative 30-yarder, which span off Petrov and ballooned just over the bar. But, although Hulse had another shot deflected over before the break, it was Villa who came closest to adding further goals.
From Petrov's delightfully clever free kick chipped to the far post, Sutton got up highest to loop a header goalwards, only to unluckily see it off come back off the underside of the bar. Then Cahill was twice denied by home keeper Paddy Kenny in the same skirmish.
From another penetrative Petrov cross, Agbonlahor touched on and Cahill was denied by a great close-range save by Kenny. But Cahill did brilliantly to latch onto the rebound, turned sharply to fire in a much fiercer shot and the Blades No 1 was forced to react sharply again.
After one of their brightest 45 minutes of the season, the half-time talk was about just how many Villa would win by if they could sustain this sort of quality. Yet, within five minutes of the restart, the Blades were level.
Rob Kozluk's long throw was only half cleared by Liam Ridgewell's head and young Quinn latched on to the loose ball to volley home unmarked from ten yards. Then, after Stuart Taylor had done well to hold onto Hulse's bullet header, the home side went in front just past the hour.
From a short corner, Gillespie picked out Chris Morgan at the far post, the Blades skipper climbed above Gavin McCann to nod back across goal and the alert Webber finished superbly, flicking nonchalantly with the outside of the right boot between the outfoxed Cahill and Taylor behind him.
It took Villa just 44 seconds to level. Davis crossed, Sutton's presence was enough for Morgan and Bromby to get in each other's way and the alert Baros was there to pick up the pieces.
Striding though the gap, he took one neat touch before hammering a right-foot volley into the roof of the net for his first Villa goal since that memorable day when Blues were beaten by Villa for the first time in a Premiership fixture in mid-April.
From that point on, the Blades looked the more likely winners.
Gillespie's free kick somehow went all the way through before just missing the post. And, in one frantic scramble, Taylor twice saved from Hulse and substitute Christian Nade in between Villa substitute Aaron Hughes clearing off the line from Hulse. And Taylor then saved a power drive from Quinn.
It was Villa who had the final chance when Petrov, who had kicked off all the fun almost two hours earlier, set his sights with a 25-yard free-kick, but it was deflected wide — and that ensured the fairest result.
SHEFFIELD UNITED (4-4-2): Kenny; Kozluk, Bromby, Morgan, Geary; Gillespie, Jagielka, Montgomery, S Quinn; Hulse, Webber (Nade, 68). Subs: C Davis, A Quinn, Armstrong, Kazim-Richards.
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Taylor; Mellberg, Cahill, Ridgewell, Bouma (Hughes, 67); Agbonlahor, McCann, Petrov, Davis (Osbourne, 75); Sutton (Angel, 83), Baros. Subs: Olejnik (gk), Gardner.
Referee: Mark Halsey (Bolton, Lancashire).
Bookings: Sheffield — Kozluk, Bromby (fouls); Villa — Cahill (foul)}
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