Aston Villa 1 Bolton 1
Gerard Houllier witnessed at first hand Aston Villa’s strengths and weaknesses after they failed to provide caretaker-manager Kevin MacDonald with the perfect send off.
New Villa boss Houllier, with assistant Gary McAllister joining him in the directors’ box after the Scot was confirmed in the role just before kick off, will believe he has plenty of talent to work with, although it only showed itself in patches today.
With MacDonald taking charge of his final game, Ashley Young scored in his fifth successive match against Bolton to give Villa an early lead, only for captain Kevin Davies to net a worthy equaliser for the visitors.
Houllier officially takes up the reins on Monday, with his first match in charge a home Carling Cup tie with Blackburn just 48 hours later.
The Frenchman will have little time to impose his own ideas on the side for that game, but at least he does not inherit a squad low on confidence as Villa could easily be heading into that match on the back of successive defeats after Monday’s loss at Stoke.
What will be apparent to Houllier is that Villa start energetically and are full of pace and swagger, as they did in this match because they could easily have been a goal to the good inside two minutes.
Attacking down the right wing, Marc Albrighton curled in a cross-cum-shot with pace that forced goalkeeper Adam Bogdan, deputising again for the suspended Jussi Jaaskelainen, into a fingertip save.
The 20-year-old then dragged narrowly wide a right-foot shot four minutes later as Villa threatened to add to the 13 goals they had thumped past Bolton in the previous three matches at Villa Park.
When the breakthrough duly arrived there was a sense the floodgates could again open, and it would be another torrid afternoon for the Trotters.
After being fouled by Fabrice Muamba, Young picked himself up off the floor to curl a 24-yard free-kick around a wall which James Collins had superbly leaned in to create the opening.
Young’s celebration was a fitting testimony to MacDonald and the work he has done over the past six weeks after being thrust into the spotlight following Martin O’Neill’s abrupt exit on the eve of the season.
The 25-year-old turned, pointed towards an applauding MacDonald and ran over to the Scot on the touchline where he proceeded to give him a big hug.
But as with virtually every game Villa have played this season the early intensity soon waned before a lapse of concentration at the back allowed the visitors a route into the game, and that will be a concern for Houllier.
Davies, declared fit despite the concussion sustained in last week’s 4-1 defeat at Arsenal, had already served notice of his intent in the fourth minute.
Capitalising on a sloppy ball across his own 18-yard box by Stephen Warnock, Bolton countered, culminating in Davies curling a 20-yard right-foot shot narrowly beyond Brad Friedel’s left-hand post.
Their equaliser 10 minutes before the break was superbly conjured, although Villa were architects of their own downfall given the gaps in the home defence.
Stuart Holden’s flick to the far post was collected by Martin Petrov who played a quick pass into an all-alone Davies standing just outside the six-yard box.
With Villa’s defence nowhere, Davies was allowed to turn and rifle into the roof of the net a left-foot shot for his second of the season, both coming in his last three games.
After a half-shout for a penalty when Johan Elmander appeared to be clipped by Richard Dunne, replaced at half time by Carlos Cuellar, the Villa defence parted again just before the break.
Collecting a through ball from Paul Robinson, Holden was given time and space to advance before rifling in a low 20-yard drive that was only inches away.
Villa responded after the interval with Stephen Ireland grazing the left-hand post with a flicked effort following a surging run and Bogdan collecting a stinging drive from Stewart Downing at the second attempt.
Bolton, though, had ideas of grabbing the winner themselves, with Friedel forced to palm away a half volley from Elmander in the 62nd minute.
Eight minutes later Friedel saved his side again, spreading himself to a snap shot from Holden after his fellow American had squeezed between two Villa defenders.
Friedel ultimately proved the difference between a draw and a Bolton win as he brilliantly blocked on the line a 22-yard free-kick from substitute Matthew Taylor in the 84th minute.