Wimbledon run out of steam
WIMBLEDON'S bong unbeaten Premier League record ended amid a series of slipped defensive discs at Villa Park yesterday. Having accepted a goal from Santa's grotto, Aston Villa scored four more to go fourth in the table. For their supporters, grown accustomed to a frugal diet, this was a rare feast.
It was Wimbledon's first defeat in 20 league and cup games. It was also their heaviest since they lost 6-1 at Newcastle 14 months earlier. Considering Villa also had three goals disallowed for offside, Joe Kinnear's team could count themselves fortunate to have avoided a repetition of their 7-1 rout at Villa Park two seasons ago.
Wimbledon were well beaten yesterday after defending so solidly during the first half hour that the prospect of their opponents achieving five shots on target, let alone scoring five times, appeared remote. Yet their collapse in the second half was so complete that the mere idea of their drawing level on points with Liverpool at the top, which would have been the reward for a Wimbledon victory, became an absurd hypothesis.
Liverpool were the silent beneficiaries of Villa's victory. With both Arsenal and Wimbledon losing over the weekend they can extend their Premiership lead to five points by beating Newcastle at St James's Park tonight.
This is the first time in five seasons of Premier League football that Aston Villa have achieved five successive victories. They ended yesterday's game looking worth their place among the leading pursuers, but until they scored offered a number of reasons why their challenge might still become muted.
Faced with a packed defence offering the narrowest glimpses of goal, Brian Little's team played patience when their passing required more snap. Fernando Nelson and Alan Wright were advancing into the space Wimbledon were prepared on the flanks but produced few centres of quality. Dwight Yorke was being well marshalled by Chris Perry and Dean Blackwell, the Wimbledon centre backs, and only the studious ball control of Savo Milosevic offered Villa much hope of breaking the chilly stalemate.
The goal that changed the whole pattern of the proceedings seven minutes before half time arrived mere seconds after Villa had been denied a score by one of the season's more aberrant off side decisions. At least three Wimbledon defenders were keeping Yorke on side when Ian Taylor played the ball through to him.
What followed, therefore, was poetic justice of Tennysonian proportions. Neil Sullivan played the free kick out to Cunningham on the right, and in attempting a return pass to his goalkeeper the full back gave Yorke a clear run through what was now unpopulated territory.
Yorke scored between Sullivan's legs, and four minutes later Villa were further ahead. This time Perry, misjudging the ball in the air, inadvertently back headed behind his own lines. Blackwell came racing across to cover the danger but missed both ball and Milosevic, who held off the centre back's subsequent challenge to stab a shot past Sullivan.
Their plans for containment in disarray, Wimbledon spent the rest of the match getting more men forward and, as a result, leaving themselves increasingly exposed at the back. For Aston Villa this really was Christmas come early.
Now Yorke, ably supported by Milosevic and Andy Townsend, was in his element. Almost every time the Tobagan received the ball and turned towards goal Villa looked like scoring again. Whereas in the first half hour their passing had tended to become lost in a mass of bodies their movements now found space at will.
Taylor headed Aston Villa's third goal a minute past the hour after a superb cross from Steve Staunton on the left had found Sullivan blocking Milosevic's first time shot. The ball rebounded to a grateful Taylor at the near post.
This was only the second time since the start of the season that Villa had scored three times, and on the previous occasion they had lost 4-3 at Newcastle. Not that there was much chance of a similar occurrence yesterday.
With 14 minutes remaining Milosevic accepted a return pass from Townsend and scored his second goal, and Villa's fourth, with the aid of a deflection off Blackwell. Then in the 85th minute Yorke darted in front of Blackwell to meet a low centre from Sasa Curcic, who had replaced Mark Draper, and complete the scoring with the most stylish finish of the afternoon, an exquisite flick into the far corner of the net.
Kinnear described the result as a "blimp". At least Villa Park had refrained from singing Colonel Bogey.
"If, at the start of the season, I'd told people that by Christmas we would have been level with Liverpool at the top if we had beaten Aston Villa they'd have carried me off to the nuthouse," the Wimbledon manager argued defiantly. "Now people will be saying what a great side Aston Villa are, but they're still a point behind us."
With Villa due to meet Arsenal, Manchester United, Newcastle and Liverpool once they have played Chelsea on St Stephen's Day Kinnear may be right to keep a sense of perspective. But at times yesterday his crazy gang must have driven him mad.