Collins strike denies deadly rivals

LOCAL pride might have remained intact for Aston Villa and Birmingham City yesterday but their derby draw did neither of their survival hopes many favours.

James Collins’ 73rd-minute equaliser at St Andrew’s was sufficient to move them out of the relegation zone ahead of Wigan Athletic and up to 17th, albeit only by courtesy of goals scored, while their local rivals, who led via a Roger Johnson effort, are scarcely better off, precariously positioned just a place above with a solitary point more.

It was a result which at least bought Villa manager Gerard Houllier some breathing space as defeat against their most bitter rivals would have been unthinkable.

His team have still claimed just six points from the last 30 on offer and it could get worse before it gets better with the Manchester giants lying in wait in two of their next three league games.

Houllier said: “I’m pleased for the fans, we deserved it but three months ago it might have been different.”

Match-saver Collins added: “No-one is happy with the way we have been performing on the pitch. It is down to the players to really dig in and hopefully the spirit and the fight we showed will spur us on.

“When you are down there the one thing you need to show is fight and commitment and we certainly did that.”

The result was one both teams would, in all probability, have settled for beforehand — the Blues making it four points from six while Villa avoided what threatened to be a seventh league defeat in nine.

Birmingham manager Alex McLeish said: “That point could be crucial at the end of the season. So I think you’ve got to be thankful for any point in the Premier League.”

Having seen their previous battle, the Carling Cup quarter-final on December 1, marred by on-pitch rioting, both clubs would have been relieved to see the match pass by relatively trouble-free, save for a solitary smoke bomb.

The game certainly failed to capture the crowd’s imagination in the same way, with 22,287 the lowest attendance to watch this fixture in the Premier League.

Birmingham started sluggishly and still appeared to be showing signs of a hangover from their midweek Carling Cup semi-final first leg defeat to West Ham and no-one more so than Ben Foster, who had been at fault for the Hammers’ winner.

The match was not even a minute old when John Carew, handed his first start since November, capitalised on a poor clearance from the City goalkeeper, feeding Gabriel Agbonlahor before the striker cut inside from the left channel only to blaze over with just Foster to beat.

It was a chance easier to score than miss.

Villa were undeterred, though, and came even closer when Carew flicked an Agbonlahor header onto the crossbar.

The Blues spurned a golden opportunity of their own after 22 minutes, though, when Craig Gardner outfoxed Kyle Walker down the City left and picked out the unmarked Matt Derbyshire, who somehow missed the ball entirely with just Brad Friedel to beat.

As misses go, it pushed Agbonlahor’s.

In what was a pulsating end-to-end encounter, within seconds Villa had hit the crossbar for a second time when Ciaran Clark’s curling cross ricocheted off the woodwork with Foster caught out.

Birmingham saw two penalty claims dismissed by referee Mark Clattenburg within a matter of seconds just before half-time, but that was forgotten as it took just four minutes of the second half for them to go ahead, after being handed a free-kick for a foul on Alex Hleb by James Collins.

David Bentley, impressive on his debut, teed up ex-Villa midfielder Gardner and his driven free-kick was diverted across the area by Murphy and Johnson reacted quickest with a clinical low strike.

Collins made amends, however, when Kyle Walker laid off to Albrighton, whose cross fell kindly to the Welshman for him to hook home — with a little help from Ridgewell.

“It was unbelievable we could get ourselves in a mess like that and then give away the goal,” said McLeish, who has been dealt the bad news that he is set to be without key defender Scott Dann for the remainder of the season.

It could have been even worse but for a fine fingertip save from Foster which diverted Nathan Delfouneso’s 25-yard drive onto the crossbar.

There was still time, however, for Blues substitute Nikola Zigic to head inches wide from a Foster free-kick.

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