Aston Villa continue to edge clear of the bottom three, although in many ways this represented a missed opportunity for Alex McLeish and his players, as Robert Huth's fifth goal of the season denied them the victory that would surely have extinguished any relegation fears. Huth's second-half header from Jermaine Pennant's free-kick cancelled out Andreas Weimann's splendid opener and leaves Villa seven points above the drop zone with six games remaining, starting with the trip to Old Trafford on Sunday.
That Stoke City's equaliser came courtesy of a set-piece was no surprise. This season Villa have conceded more goals (21) from dead-ball situations than any other Premier League club and they never looked comfortable throughout when dealing with Huth's aerial presence. The central defender's goal ensured the mood was subdued at the final whistle on a cold, wet night in the west Midlands, when an uninspiring match was watched by only 30,100 spectators, Villa's lowest league crowd of the season.
Stoke deserved a point on the balance of play, although Villa were left to rue the moment in the second half when Gabriel Agbonlahor squandered a great opportunity to double their lead. Racing on to Barry Bannan's fine first-time pass, Agbonlahor, who has not scored in the league since November, broke clear in the left channel only to drag his shot so far wide of Asmir Begovic, the Stoke goalkeeper, that the ball ran out for a throw-in on the far side of the pitch.
It was that sort of night at Villa Park as neither side played with any conviction. Villa, with seven academy graduates on the field at one point, could not be faulted for their effort but looked nervous in possession and offered little going forward, while Stoke's threat was largely confined to set‑plays. Huth, who has now scored more times (12) than any other Premier League defender in the past three seasons, headed a couple of Matthew Etherington corners wide either side of half-time before he got the goal that McLeish felt should not have been allowed to stand.
"I'm disappointed that we didn't get a second goal to put it beyond Stoke because they're always going to threaten you at the set-pieces. The big disappointment was that I thought it should have been disallowed," the Villa manager said.
"Huth has got two hands on James Collins's shoulders – there is no way he could have got off the ground. And I also felt that the free‑kick leading up to it was one of the softest I have seen this season. [Gary] Gardner never moved, he concentrated on the ball, he kept his arms at his side and Pennant tried to ease in front of him and use his experience to get the foul. I'm aggrieved at that but they're a dangerous team and they work it well."
Weimann's goal was a beauty and provided a rare moment of excitement in an otherwise soporific first half. The 20-year-old Austrian striker swapped passes with Eric Lichaj close to the touchline before playing a neat one-two with Stephen Ireland that created the space to shoot at goal. There was still much to do but Weimann expertly opened up his body to create the room to sweep a glorious right-footed shot that curled beyond Begovic and into the top corner of the net. "It was a fantastic strike and we needed a bit of inspiration at that time," McLeish said. "It was out of nothing. He manoeuvred himself into the curler and it was a wonderful goal from a great young prospect."
With Villa's treatment room already busy enough, McLeish could have done without seeing Stephen Warnock limp off after falling awkwardly on his ankle and Chris Herd depart on a stretcher with a head injury. Herd left for hospital for a check-up after the match while Warnock will have a scan on Tuesday to determine whether there is any serious damage. At least the Villa manager could take comfort from the fact that Villa's survival hopes have improved over the bank holiday weekend. "We've gained some ground but we've got to keep going," he said.
Stoke, who are 12th in the Premier League and counting down the days till their summer holidays, have no such concerns. "That's 51 games we have played [this season] and the second in three days," Tony Pulis, the Stoke manager, said. "We lack a lot of things but one thing you can never criticise us for is our commitment and effort."