Villa's 2-1 victory at Reading was dramatic, high on tension and owed much to a slice of good fortune in the shape of a marginal offside decision, but it also brings badly-needed belief heading into the decisive stage of the season.
- Match report: Reading 1-2 Aston Villa
Villa are, for a week at least, out of the bottom three and flush with the added bonus of depriving one of the other clubs in the relegation dogfight of points. The importance of this win must not be underestimated, given what occurred elsewhere in the Premier League this Saturday afternoon.
QPR -- Villa's next opponents -- beat Sunderland to move level with Reading on 23 points. Wigan, FA Cup victors against Everton, have fallen into the bottom three, on 24. Villa have now climbed to 17th, on 27 points -- just a single point behind Southampton and three behind both Sunderland and Newcastle. It's getting tight down there among the bottom half-dozen spots and the more teams to get dragged into the panic zone, the better as far as Villa are concerned, at least.
There will be more twists and turns in the coming weeks, but Villa have made a statement: There is fight in this team. There is unity, there is belief and there is desire. Paul Lambert has never wavered all season from his opinion that his team will escape relegation, at times his repeated mantra verging on the maddening when witnessing the struggles on the pitch.
But against Reading his young players demonstrated why they have the faith of their manager. They showed the character to suggest that, yes, they may well get out of this sticky situation yet.
As is the way of things with Villa this season, there was another head in hands defensive blunder to recover from. Chances had already been and gone for both sides -- Adam Le Fondre forcing a first minute save from Brad Guzan, Christian Benteke hitting the bar and Andreas Weimann scuffing wide -- when Reading took the lead after half an hour.
It was a dreadful error, again, from a Villa defender. On Monday night, Ciaran Clark slipped to provide a goal on a plate for Manchester City. Against Reading, it was his occasional centre back partner, Nathan Baker, deployed at left back to cater for Ron Vlaar's return, who capitulated. Jobi McAnuff's cross panicked Baker into a comical swipe of a clearance, which screwed past Guzan for a ridiculous own goal.
The Madjeski Stadium erupted in celebration, but here is where Villa showed their spirit. Barely 60 seconds later, they were level when Benteke's shot took a deflection of Reading's Stephen Kelly. And by halftime, the visitors were in front.
Lambert's decision to select Barry Bannan, who hadn't even been included in recent matchday squads, let alone the starting XI, was a bit of a head-scratcher, especially as it came at the expense of Charles N'Zogbia. But Bannan had an effective first half -- in a midfield which also included Yacouba Sylla -- making his first start for the club and the Scot was heavily involved in Villa's second.
The build-up showed the quality that Villa have hinted at in flashes during the season, a combination of 20-plus passes before Bannan hit the post and Gabby Agbonlahor smashed in the rebound. Ahead 2-1 at halftime, Villa had a decisive advantage.
With Villa's penchant for conceding late goals, and Reading's recent flair for scoring them, it's fair to say the travelling support were braced for disappointment in the second half. That Villa saw the game out was slightly lucky -- Reading striker Noel Hunt did score, but was flagged offside.
The decision was certainly controversial and will no doubt spark debate and counter-debate, but it wasn't clear cut either way. It was tight, and Villa got the benefit of the doubt. It was one of the rare occasions this season that luck smiled on Lambert's team -- perhaps it's about the time the ball bounced kindly for them.
One down, nine to go. Next up QPR; buoyed by successive league victories and expected to come to Villa Park with renewed confidence. But they'll find a home side who should have an added spark about them, too.