Villa can see the positives - in time

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Not tomorrow, or the day after that, or in a week or month's time, even, but at some point in the future, Villa may well look back on the heartbreaking finale to Saturday's defeat at Manchester United with no small measure of pride.

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United are good at dishing out heartbreak; experts even. Ask, well, ask any number of unfortunate opponents over the years. Ask Braga, their most recent rivals coming into the match at Villa Park, the Portuguese club who were ten minutes away from a famous Champions League victory in midweek until the Mancunians hit three goals in the last ten minutes to claim victory.

Now Villa have tasted it - the bitterness of a defeat incurred by yet another late, late United comeback. Having led 2-0, with two goals from Andreas Weimann, Villa Park was absolutely rocking - only to be ultimately silenced when Javier Hernandez came off the bench to score twice (or three times, depending on your opinion on the effort which took a deflection off Ron Vlaar) to steal the game with six or seven minutes to go.

Cruel. Very cruel, and not really what Paul Lambert's very young team deserved.

I'm not usually one for toasting a plucky defeat, but in the wider context of the season, the direction Lambert is attempting to steer Villa in, the long-term future of the club, and all that has gone before over the previous two and a half seasons, this performance was significant.

It is hard for players and manager to convince everyone outside the inner circle to believe in what they are trying to achieve when the output is a 4-1 defeat at Southampton, or a tepid and slightly fortunate 1-1 home draw with Norwich. But when that same team sticks it to Manchester United for the best part of an hour, roughs them up en route to a 2-0 lead before understandably running out of stream against the wealth of talent that one of the world's superclubs can boast - well, that's how you earn people's respect.

Let's look at Villa's starting line-up against United. Guzan, Lowton, Stevens, Vlaar, Clark, Westwood, Bannan, Ireland, Weimann, Agbonhalor, Benteke. Five of those players hadn't kicked a ball in the Premier League before August. Lowton came from Sheffield United, Westwood from Crewe Alexandra. Stevens, making his first ever PL start, from Shamrock Rovers. The average age of that XI is 23-24. Goalkeeper Guzan, at 28, was Villa's oldest player.

United's team cost somewhere in the region of £160 million to put together; a mismatch of gargantuan proportions, some might say.

So, while I'm not proud to lose narrowly to Manchester United, and nor do I seek consolation in 'only' losing by a single goal - Villa lost 1-0 in this fixture last season and I can tell you the manner of that defeat, where the team conceded early and showed zero ambition to make the least bit of fight of it, left me deeply ashamed - I look at this performance, following on from the win at Sunderland, and see a team in development.

And I like what I'm seeing. I like that Lambert is finding his feet with these players, is learning the formation that suits this group best; a 4-3-3 is definitely the way forward, with two deeper midfielders behind Stephen Ireland, and two wide strikers (Agbonhalor, Weimann) backing up Benteke.

I like that Barry Bannan is getting games in the middle of midfield. What a wonderful footballer he is. I'm excited to see the progress of Ashley Westwood, a technically sound midfielder, alongside him. And I'm seriously impressed by Christian Benteke, who is looking better and better with every game: United's defenders were shown up more than once by the 21-year-old Belgian.

To finish the match without a point to show for their collective effort and enterprise is still galling for Villa's players, and for Lambert, but in the grand scheme of things, those 90-odd minutes could prove to be very important.

The chink of light at the end of what has been, at times, a very dark tunnel? It just might be.

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