x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 16 January 2018

Agbonlahor the local hero

Gabriel Agbonlahor began the second city derby with the distinction of being the only native Brummie on either side.

BIRMINGHAM // Gabriel Agbonlahor began the second city derby with the distinction of being the only native Brummie on either side. He spent it listening to some decidedly tasteless songs from the Birmingham supporters about his mother, but he ended it having decided the game in Aston Villa's favour. The cliche is that such local skirmishes mean more to the supporters than the players, but it was fitting that the fan on the pitch proved the match-winner.

An otherwise forgettable encounter was rendered memorable for the Erdington-born, Birmingham-bred striker with five minutes remaining. Ashley Young's free-kick was headed across the penalty area by John Carew for Agbonlahor to divert it beyond a diving Joe Hart. Historically the dominant side in the city, Villa have the recent statistics to assert their superiority. It is three goals in as many meetings for Agbonlahor, who had delivered the winner at the same end of St Andrew's in the corresponding fixture two seasons ago, and five successive derby triumphs for Villa. The traditional aristocrats retain their authority in England's West Midlands.

They did so, however, courtesy of a greater sense of adventure. It is to Martin O'Neill's credit that he conjured a victory from a tactical standstill. For 70 minutes, 4-5-1 played 4-5-1, the majority of players compressed in the middle of the pitch. Then the Villa manager removed a midfielder, Nigel Reo-Coker, and introduced a second striker, Carew, to provide the isolated Agbonlahor with company in attack.

"I don't know about a game-plan but we are able to adjust and adapt," said O'Neill. "It looked as though it was heading for stalemate and I wanted us to put more pressure on Birmingham. We got John on and he made a big contribution." Following the Norwegian's arri-val, clear-cut chances were belatedly fashioned. Steve Sidwell's close-range header was blocked by Hart and James Milner's drive narrowly evaded the far post before Agbonlahor provided the clinical touch that had been conspicuously lacking beforehand.

Villa's earlier caution was understandable. They fielded three debutant defenders. Frantic as O'Neill's trading at the end of the transfer window was, there was a unity to his new-look back four. Their commitment to a new cause was epitomised when each of the trio of Richard Dunne, James Collins and Stephen Warnock flung himself at Sebastian Larsson's shot. "I was very, very pleased with all three," added O'Neill.

"The performances were excellent considering they only had Friday and Saturday to acquaint themselves with each other." Collins and Dunne were especially and equally defiant, with Birmingham only threatening when Keith Fahey's drive nearly beat an unsighted Brad Friedel. As defensive in his comments as he was in his strategy, the Birmingham manager Alex McLeish insisted: "Villa played the same at home [against Fulham] with one striker, so I don't see why I can't use one striker at home. I thought the tactics were spot on. The difference between us and Villa in financial clout and quality is a gulf, but it didn't look like that today.

"I didn't think we allowed them to play at all today. We nullified the threat of Agbonlahor and Ashley Young." Indeed, a reconfigured rearguard, with the midfielder Teemu Tainio making an assured bow at right-back, acquitted themselves commendably. Yet while O'Neill was prepared to try a two-man attack, McLeish only brought on his summer signing, Christian Benitez, at the expense of his sole striker, Garry O'Connor.

Yet Villa's resourcefulness brought a return of three points to maintain their winning habit. Booed off after 45 minutes of their campaign, against Wigan, Villa have responded to that initial setback with three successive victories. Winning at Anfield brought greater prestige. Triumphing at St Andrew's matters more to supporters and Agbonlahor alike. @Email:rjolly@thenational.ae Read Jolly's view on Emmanuel Adebayor's actions against Arsenal on Saturday exclusively in tomorrow's sports section