Villa's Late Reprieve Tough on Courageous Clarets
At the end of a murky week for international football, it was a delight to get back to the domestic chores and usher in our second trimester of Premier League action with the visit of Aston Villa.
Three weeks since our last home match and with the memories of a wonderful experience at Manchester City a fortnight ago, almost every last seat was taken as Turf Moor throbbed with poise and anticipation ahead of a league fixture not seen at this level since 1976.
Almost fittingly, it was a truly disgusting Burnley day, reminiscent of the wintry conditions that provided the backdrop for Burnley's unforgettable Carling Cup semi-final against Tottenham back in February. Just like on that occasion, the Clarets adjusted to the howling wind and rain much better than their opponents.
Coyle's unchanged side were recharged after the international break and the five-man midfield immediately set about Villa, denying them any time on the ball and suffocating the middle of the park, where it soon became evident that the battle was there for the winning.
Roared on by a hungry support, the home side pressed early on and Robbie Blake's early touches suggested he was much more in the mood than he had been in a below-par display at Manchester City. Steve Sidwell took a swipe at him in the ninth minute leading to referee Howard Webb awarding Burnley a free-kick wide on the left wing.
Blake swung the resulting dead ball right into Brad Friedel's corridor of uncertainty and, with the ex-Rovers goalkeeper committed, Steve Caldwell rose superbly to squeeze between him and Richard Dunne to head into the unguarded net from around the penalty spot.
Incredibly, we took the lead at home for the seventh time in succession.
The goal buoyed Burnley and befuddled Villa. The previously loud Villa followers, who had amused with their version of 'Kum By Ya', were muted as the home fans threw the taunts back while urging their team to deepen the visitors' sense of shell shock.
When Villa did make headway territorially, they were often repelled on the edge of the Burnley penalty area. From one such intervention by Graham Alexnder, the Clarets broke at speed and Chris Eagles ought to have played in Steven Fletcher after a strong run but he miscued his pass.
Stephen Warnock was booed incessantly and it appeared to affect his ability to link up with team-mates. Andre Bikey and Alexander not only provided a defensive forcefield in front of the back four but prompted attacking moves too.
A brilliant move saw Eagles cross for Fletcher who set up Bikey with a lovely flick but the big man sent a fierce shot just wide of the target.
Alexander was right on top of his game. He was calmness personified as he dealt with a tricky ball in his own penalty area with a deft back header to Eagles as Burnley moved the ball out of defence with finesse.
Blake was ever the conjourer. The worse the weather the better he seems to get. Former England international Luke Young struggled to live with him as the little maestro turned him inside out before sending in an excellent cross that was decisively met by Dunne.
Such was Burnley's dominance in the first half, it seemed we had an extra player at times.
Eagles saw plenty of the ball but did not always seal his industry as well as he might. One persistent run at the heart of the Villa defence ended disappointingly, with a weak shot that Friedel easily saved.
Burnley's back four were also worthy of praise. They defended solidly as a unit and Villa's vaunted wing options of Ashley Young and James Milner were all but nullified by the defensive discipline of Tyrone Mears and Stephen Jordan. Mears' natural attacking instincts were too much for Dunne to handle and the Irish defender was booked for a late challenge on him. Jordan's performance was highlighted when he picked Petrov's pocket while tracking back, to deny Villa a rare advance.
Petrov showed his quality though just before half-time with a long ball for Agbonlahor that drew Brian Jensen unnecessarily out of his goal. When Villa's speed merchant reached the ball first and found Ashley Young, home fans held their breath, but the winger capped an inert first half display by curling his effort over the bar.
There was an uncomfortable couple of corners right at the death and from one of them, Alexander nearly sliced the ball into his own goal, but the half-time whistle drew warm applause from the home fans who had witnessed a terrific display from Coyle's men.
If Martin O'Neill tore into his team at the interval, it didn't obviously show. Burnley maintained their control on proceedings early in the second half and Villa were fortunate not to be reduced to 10 men within 10 minutes of the restart. Fletcher got on the end of Blake's fine pass and twisted away from last defender Dunne. The Irishman, no stranger to red cards, was at the arse end of a terrible week after all that had gone on in Paris on Wednesday.
There was no doubt he clearly pulled Fletcher's shirt but before the referee had time to react to his offence, Cuellar expertly confused the issue by clattering Fletcher with a hopeless sliding challenge. The result was a yellow card for Cuellar, leaving Dunne unpunished. A real let-off for Villa.
The home supporters urged Blake to take the resulting free-kick but Mears took charge, curling the ball just too high.
Villa's ability to turn defence into attack in an instant was illustrated when Friedel punted forward and Carew set Agbonlahor away with a flicked header. Thankfully Jensen got his fingertips to the striker's shot and Burnley breathed again.
The match was becoming increasingly end-to-end as the conditions worsened. Possibly Burnley's best move of the match was triggered by a Wade Elliott interception and involved some audacious skill by Bikey in central midfield. He in turn found Blake who moved in from the left and shot with his right from a similar range as his goal at Blackburn. Friedel could only parry the shot away awkwardly, but there was nobody following up the rebound.
Villa got closer to an equaliser as the game wore on. Milner ran on to an Agbonlahor flick and Jordan did superbly to hook away the ball away.
Substitute Kevin McDonald replaced an increasingly ragged looking Eagles and made a telling contribution within minutes when he played a slide rule pass for Fletcher to pivot and then smash a shot from the corner of the penalty area. Friedel saved brilliantly by diving to his right and tipping the ball wide of the post.
Burnley's inability to score a second goal had the tension soaring. David Nugent, his usual perky self as a replacement for Fletcher, did have the ball in the net from 40 yards but the flag had already gone up for an offside decision that looked dubious from my vantage point. Sandy Stewart was livid.
Invigorated by the introduction of two England internationals - the £12m Stewart Downing and Emile Heskey - Villa were flooding the Burnley penalty area whenever they could.
The pressure told with just four minutes left on the clock. Jensen chose to punch and not catch a Downing corner and the ball fell to Milner who delivered a killer ball back into the edge of the six yard box. Heskey got there before Jordan and Carlisle to bury a header into the corner of the net and send the Villa fans wild.
There was talk in the toilets afterwards that it was Beast's fault but I don't think he deserves the blame. Maybe he might not have punched the ball out from Downing's corner but the conditions were terrible and he got plenty of purchase on his punch and was unlucky the ball landed at Milner's feet. The quality of the cross was decisive and few goalkeepers would have been able to do much about it.
So the second anniversary of Owen Coyle's reign at Turf Moor ends in a 1-1 draw against a top six side who we have dominated for two thirds of the 90 minutes. Once again, we have played some superb stuff and the desire of the players has been absolute. It tells plenty of how far the manager has brought us that we feel disappointed by this outcome.
The consistency of our recent performances is hugely satisfying and reaching a really credible level now. Meanwhile, another clean bill of health in terms of yellow cards keeps the Clarets' Fair Play standing at the right end of the division and a shot at Europe in our dreams! Here's to getting another monkey off our back next week at West Ham.Cuban Claret