Ashley Westwood could hardly have picked a better moment to score his first Aston Villa goal. Looking dead and buried at the interval, after a first half when they were unable to deal with the effervescence of Shane Long, Villa completed a stirring comeback, courtesy of Westwood's splendid strike, to ensure this entertaining west Midlands derby ended with honours even for the fourth time in succession.
It was role reversal from the corresponding fixture last season when Villa raced into a two-goal lead only to be pegged back by Albion in the second half. While the complexion of the game changed here from the moment that Paul Lambert made a triple substitution in the 57th minute and reconfigured his Villa team into a 4-3-3 formation, Albion were left to rue their failure to build on such a promising start after two goals of the highest quality from Long.
Stéphane Sessègnon will be more frustrated than anyone. On a night when Long played like a man possessed, Sessègnon was guilty of missing two gilt-edged chances at critical junctures in the game. The former Sunderland forward made a terrible hash of turning in a routine volley from inside the six-yard box in the 19th minute, at a time when Albion were two goals ahead, and he squandered another excellent opportunity in the second half, blazing over the bar after more good play from Morgan Amalfitano.
The significance of that second opportunity became clear three minutes later. Andreas Weimann, one of the three players introduced from the Villa bench, set up Karim El Ahmadi for the goal that sent renewed belief coursing through the visitors.
With momentum now with Villa, Gabriel Agbonlahor, another of the Villa substitutes, crossed from the left and Goran Popov's poor header dropped at the feet of Westwood. The former Crewe Alexandra midfielder took a touch before thumping a low shot from 25 yards inside Boaz Myhill's post.
If the result felt harsh on anyone it was Long, who was unplayable in the opening 45 minutes in particular. The Republic of Ireland international produced a performance full of aggressive running and marked with touches of supreme quality, no more so than in the lead-up to the opening goal, when he pulled a 50-yard pass out of the sky and finished with aplomb. His second goal, dinked over the head of Brad Guzan, was not too shabby, either.
On the evidence of his display at Chelsea in the previous game and the superb contribution he made here, it seems bizarre that Albion were so close to selling Long to Hull City on deadline day and that they have yet to agree a new contract with a player whose deal expires at the end of next season.
Long terrorised Villa's backline at times. His first goal, after only three minutes, was an absolute beauty. Chris Brunt delivered a raking pass that Long, stretching out his right leg, brought down with a wonderful piece of close control.
He took one more touch to shift the ball onto his left foot, taking Nathan Baker out of the game in the process, before drilling a left-footed shot that fizzed into the bottom corner of the net. It was a goal of the highest calibre.
If Baker failed to cover himself in glory on that occasion, Leandro Bacuna was guilty of an even worse piece of defending before the second goal.
The Dutchman carelessly gave away possession deep inside his own half with a dreadful pass that never looked like finding Baker. Razor sharp, Long pounced on the ball, beat Baker with a clever dummy and had the composure to execute a pitching wedge of a chip over the head of Guzan and into the net off the underside of the bar.
Sessègnon's first faux pas followed, when he made poor contact with the ball from Amalfitano's inviting centre. At that stage Villa, who hit the crossbar through Libor Kozak in the 24th minute and threatened sporadically in the first half, looked vulnerable every time Albion attacked.
But the balance of the game shifted once Lambert made his changes in the second half.
Sessègnon's profligacy at one end was punished at the other when Weimann got in front of Claudio Yacob to head Bacuna's cross into the path of El Ahmadi. The Moroccan took advantage of the space he was afforded in the Albion penalty area and hooked a volley over the head of Myhill and into the net.
Clarke felt that the game had slipped from his players' control at that point and his worst fears were confirmed when Westwood's piledriver brought parity.
"I knew if we scored the next one [at 2-0] it would flip the coin," Lambert said. "To be two goals down in any game, let alone a derby, is incredibly tough. You've got to be resolute not to concede again. It was just a matter of getting them in at half-time and having a chat with them. The three lads who came on only trained on Friday. We threw them on and thankfully it worked."