Difficult season ends with hope for the future

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Ron Vlaar earns Aston Villa a 2-2 draw at relegated Wigan AthleticGettyImagesRon Vlaar earns Aston Villa a 2-2 draw at relegated Wigan Athletic

The relegation six-pointer that never was. Sunday's match could have been one of excruciating tension for Villa, the last hurdle needing to be cleared before confirming Premier League survival. Instead, with insurmountable daylight between Villa and Wigan, it was only ever going to be one of those routine, season-ending affairs. So it proved, with both sides serving up an entertaining 2-2 draw at the DW Stadium.

Villa's performance, it has to be said, was indicative of the good and bad they have delivered for much of the campaign. Again, there was the usual bright attacking play, with the visitors starting quickly, taking the game to their opponents, and opening the scoring through Darren Bent after just five minutes. A nice little sub-plot; after a hugely disappointing personal season, this was a rare league start for Bent -- his first, in fact, in almost four months -- and, if this was to be his farewell Villa appearance, he at least has the satisfaction of bowing out with a goal.

- Martinez proud of relegated Latics

There was also a very late goal of the season contender from captain Ron Vlaar, who scored Villa's second on the hour, leveling the game at 2-2. The centre-back was lurking on the left-hand side of Wigan's penalty area when the ball dropped to him; the pivot and right-foot volley he hooked over his shoulder and past goalkeeper Ali Al-Habsi was astonishing. It was a strike to rival Matt Lowton's stunner at Stoke -- even Villa's defenders have looked better going forward than back this season.

If that was good, the bad was Villa's defending. Wishful thinking that the team could round off the season with a first league clean sheet in 2013; instead, there was yet another howler. After Brad Guzan parried a close-range Wigan effort in first-half injury time, the ball hit Nathan Baker, and rebounded back past Guzan and into the net for a goal which gave the Latics the lead at the interval. Relatively blameless though Baker was, it has to go down as another comedy of errors in the Villa penalty area. There have been way too many of those over the last nine months.

On another day, and in differing circumstances, that could have hurt Villa. As it was, it was a setback to shrug off. It mattered not a jot in the grand scheme of things, and once Vlaar equalised, the final third of the game ran its course uneventfully. As if to emphasize the low stakes (or no stakes) of it all, Villa manager Paul Lambert made a couple of charitable substitutions.

Loan midfielder Simon Dawkins, of whom little has been seen since his January arrival, got a half-hour run out, and there was a welcome return for Gary Gardner. A central midfield player of genuine talent, Gardner has been out for almost the entirety of the season -- his season boils down to a substitute appearance in the first game of 2012-13 and the same in the last following the second serious cruciate knee ligament injury of his career. Villa will hope to see more of Gardner next season. It would be a surprise if Dawkins remains involved, however.

For Villa, it has been a difficult campaign, verging on the terrifying at times, and the dark winter months have left some scarring: this has been the closest the club has come to losing its Premier League status. Yet there is a buzz of excitement about the momentum that Lambert and his team created in the closing couple of months, and excitement, too, about the next season.

There is work ahead, players who are obviously not part of Lambert's plans to move on, and others -- and yes, they will again be sourced in line with Villa's modest budget -- to replace them and complement the group. But it is possible to see the way ahead, which wasn't so clear 12 months ago, when Alex McLeish's players trooped off dejectedly at Carrow Road. A summer without requiring a new manager will make a pleasant change.

Has there been evidence of progress already for this Villa side? Yes -- despite the sheer desperation of the situation at times this past year, Villa have concluded the season in 15th place, climbing above Newcastle after Sunday's games. Compared to last season, that's a higher position (16th in 2011-12), more points (41-38), and more goals scored (47-37). There's still a long way to go before Aston Villa returns to where it should be, but the recovery, perhaps, has begun.

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