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Friday, 27 August 2010

Ireland’s Industry; That Is What We Are

If you’re lucky enough to follow Magic Spongers on Twitter (advantageous as the inexplicable ravings are restricted to 140-characters), you’ll know that I watched the second half of Aston Villa’s tie with Rapid Vienna with interest. For some reason, you got the impression an implosion was coming, and it duly arrived, making Kevin MacDonald’s side the dodgiest villa I’ve seen in Europe since my post A-levels holiday to Tenerife.

Despite leading 1-0 at half time, missing a penalty and snatching a goal to take themselves into the lead in the tie with about 15 minutes remaining, Villa contrived to lose and exit the Europa League at the first hurdle. The third Vienna goal most cruelly exposed them as the Austrians broke through Stephen Ireland and Stiliyan Petrov in midfield, drawing Habib Beye into the middle before moving the ball out to their right, where Christopher Trimmel crossed for Rene Gartler to score.

One of the most concerning things for this Villa side (apart from shipping nine goals in two games) was the fairly negligible impact of Stephen Ireland, particularly in the latter stages. I haven’t seen much of Villa’s 6-0 thrashing at Newcastle, but I imagine, in a 6-0 thrashing, their performance must have been pretty poor. The Irishman certainly looked off the pace in the last half an hour last night, dropping progressively deeper to get the ball in order to give himself some more time.

His lack of match sharpness is understandable, but by dropping back he was succeeding only in filling the same position as Stiliyan Petrov. Ashley Young had to come inside to spearhead the search for a goal and link the deep-lying midfield to the attack, inviting Beye and Cuellar to offer some support and width to Nigel Reo-Coker and Marc Albrighton further forward. Cue a counter-attack in behind Villa’s full backs. Cue Villa 3-2 down on the night.

Of course, that is just one incident, but it made me wonder how bad things could get at Villa given the loss of James Milner and more importantly, Martin O’Neill. With Gabriel Agbonlahor limping off injured Villa lost their impetus up front. With Milner gone, they have lost much of their drive from midfield. It doesn’t really matter if Ireland may or may not be a better player ‘on his day’ – part of Milner’s strength is his consistency, and that is a trait the two do not share. Ireland should improve with matches, but he has not started particularly well. It’s a shame, especially in the context of last night, because Ireland’s Euro vision efforts are normally quite good.

The manager’s situation is becoming an overwhelming concern. It could all have been so different for Kevin MacDonald if that penalty at St. James’s Park had gone in. Villa even started fairly well last night, but you get the sense that after such a dispiriting defeat a permanent manager will be installed before too long.

Whoever that might be is likely to have their work cut out. Beating what is rapidly becoming a West Ham side in dire straits (is Avram Grant just really into getting relegated with dignity these days?) on the opening day was a decent start, but with apparently no money to spend and only a couple of days to go until the end of the transfer window, Villa’s problems look as familiar as ever. A flimsy squad augments what could be a decent first XI, but without the O’Neill factor (his dreadful record in March every year aside), a top eight finish would be an achievement.

Keeping the first team fit will be key to their chances, as will getting Ireland fit and firing in the first place. It might not have been a 100% full-strength side last night, but those that step out on Saturday will be hard-pressed to stop the rot against an Everton side also in need of a good result. MacDonald may be in charge then, but Villa’s most pressing priority this transfer window must be to find someone to step into his shoes. Rob MacDonald

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