Beneath the seats in the upper tier of the North Stand, just above the executive boxes, is a banner that must be 40 metres wide. It is the biggest at Villa Park for a reason. The words on it are the commentary celebrating the finest day in the club's history, reliving the moment that Peter Withe scored the goal that won the European Cup in 1982. But the past can loom large over the present. Villa have not returned to the continent's premier club competition since they defended their trophy in 1983. Now the prospect of Champions League football has receded further with this draw.
Indeed, John Carew's brace was required to avert a derby defeat. The Norwegian's double, taking his personal tally to seven goals in six games, ensured his title as Villa's most in-form forward is safe. However, it was only enough to keep them in seventh place on a day when they had the opportunity to leapfrog Manchester City and Liverpool, who both face awkward away games today. Expectations, however, are an issue. A section of the Villa support booed the side off at half-time, much to Martin O'Neill's annoyance. "Being in the Carling Cup final, the semi-finals of the FA Cup and still being in the hunt for Champions League football with nine games to go isn't enough," said the Villa manager. "Maybe that should be happening every season. Maybe that's not enough."
Bookending the game, Carew's goals had a similarity. Both were evidence of a predatory instinct - the second may have gone in even without his intervention - and both prompted questions if he was offside. He was a beneficiary, too, of a fine supply line. Ashley Young's blend of acceleration, trickery and accurate crossing made him a compelling choice as man of the match. "Young was exceptional," said his manager. "He really was top class."
However, the watching Fabio Capello has been reluctant to pick this particular Villa winger while another, James Milner, endured a mixed afternoon in front of his international manager. An otherwise fine performance was marred by an own goal though, in Milner's defence, he was attempting to compensate for the failings of others. In any case, his contribution stretched far beyond that. Indeed, he had a role in Carew's opener He picked out Young, who turned too swiftly for Ronald Zubar's liking and put in a low cross to the far post where Carew tapped it home. "I thought it was offside," said Mick McCarthy, the Wolves manager, who had no qualms with Carew's second.
While Young gave Zubar a harrowing time, only one result appeared feasible. Yet, somehow, Wolves led at the interval. First David Jones curled in a free-kick to the far post where Zubar's outstretched foot connected with the ball and, with more fortune than intent, diverted it into Jody Craddock's path for a simple finish. If that constituted a surprise, a second goal qualified as a shock. For Villa, it was eminently avoidable. Beginning with the concession of possession by Emile Heskey some 60 yards from his own goal and ending with Milner, in his desperate attempts to retrieve the position, inadvertently beating Brad Friedel, it amounted to an excruciating few seconds.
But Villa responded. Carew flicked on Friedel's goal kick to Heskey. He laid the ball back into Steve Sidwell's path and the substitute's shot was touched in by the predatory Carew. "I was delighted with the team because they didn't give up," added O'Neill. "We really had to fight for every inch. There will be lots of twists and turns in the fight for the Champions League spot." He must truly hope so.