There are signs that Gérard Houllier's honeymoon period could be over at Aston Villa. The Villa manager stretched his unbeaten run in derbies to 14 matches but more damning statistics will have been playing on the minds of the disgruntled home supporters who drifted away today. Villa have won only one of their five Premier League games since Houllier took over and have failed to score in 344 minutes of top-flight football.
Kevin MacDonald, who was appointed on a caretaker basis at the start of the season, had a better record than the Frenchman from the same number of matches. It is worth remembering these are still early days and any new manager needs time to mould his own side but it was still alarming to see Villa set up so defensively and play with so little ambition until the final half an hour.
Chances came and went during that period, the best of them falling to Ciaran Clark and Ashley Young in the last six minutes. Clark, who is a centre-half by trade but was deployed as a holding midfielder and was one of the few Villa players to emerge with credit, bravely beat Ben Foster to the ball only to head wide. Young, who was a picture of frustration for most of the afternoon, later tore clear on the right flank but his powerful drive clipped the outside of the upright.
Yet for long spells Villa looked laboured and devoid of ideas. The dynamism and creativity James Milner provided last season is sorely missed and, to make things worse, the man who was a makeweight in that transfer and expected to fill the England international's boots, cannot even get on to the pitch. How galling for Stephen Ireland that two academy graduates, Clark and the substitute Barry Bannan, who have started only four Premier League games between them, were selected ahead of him.
Birmingham, who deserved to end a run of six successive defeats to Villa, were the better side before the interval and were unfortunate not to be awarded a penalty in the 38th minute, when the ball clearly struck Nigel Reo-Coker on the arm. But Howard Webb, the referee, was unmoved and waved away the appeals of the Birmingham players. "We've not had much luck with penalties in past couple of years so it was no surprise not to see it given," Alex McLeish, the Birmingham manager, said.
Reo-Coker was also involved in a couple of controversial incidents with his former Villa team-mate Craig Gardner, which led to players from both sides converging and the two protagonists being booked. The Villa captain was fouled both times, but on the second occasion he retaliated and aimed a boot at Gardner's backside. Webb produced a yellow card, and although McLeish had no real complaints with that decision, he admitted it could have been interpreted differently. "I've seen them getting sent off for that," he said.
McLeish described Birmingham's performance as "very good" and "very controlled", and praised his players for keeping their discipline, unlike last season when tempers boiled over after a controversial late penalty was given. The visitors might even have grabbed three points had Cameron Jerome shown more composure when he shrugged off Richard Dunne, but instead of picking out Nikola Zigic, who glanced a header wide in the closing seconds, the substitute steered his cross into the hands of Brad Friedel.
Clark had gone close at the opposite end moments earlier and it seemed no coincidence that the opportunity arrived after Houllier introduced a second striker, John Carew, to provide support to the isolated Emile Heskey.
The Villa manager claimed his players had suffered because of their midweek exertions against Burnley in the League Cup, when they needed extra-time to get through, but he also accepted they lacked "imagination" and "creativity".
"I thought the last half hour was better, also because we brought in young, fresh legs," he said. "The best chances were Ciaran's header and Ashley Young in the end. But that's not enough. Don't get me wrong, I'm not happy with what I saw. I'm happy with the effort – I thought we really competed well in a tense, tight, very competitive derby. So in terms of effort, there is nothing to complain about. It's just in terms of the way I see our football, it was not there today."
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