No winners in thriller at the Villa

A game billed as a Champions League qualification decider ended looking more like a mutual suicide pact for Aston Villa and Everton’s top four ambitions.

The only man smiling at the end of a pulsating affair was Arsene Wenger, the Arsenal manager, who must have been drooling at the sight of his main rivals tearing each other’s aspirations to shreds.

The goals shared between the two sides escalated to 15 in three meetings this season and the entertainment levels at Villa Park would even have had the Archbishop of York, who had questioned the need for Easter Sunday football, nodding in appreciation.

Ultimately, however, it proved pointless for both Villa and Everton, who must surely now concede defeat in the race to catch Wenger.

This was the one result neither wanted, leaving Everton with a nine-point deficit and Villa one less, with six games remaining.

Even though Arsenal have to face all three of the sides currently sitting above them in the Premier League pecking order, for their position to be under serious threat, a positive result was needed here. The fact it was not forthcoming was not for the want of trying on both sides.

O’Neill firmly believes that, outside of the Premier League’s top four, his side have provided the best entertainment all season. Everton supporters would certainly have grounds for an argument and provided enough evidence here to offer in support.

The way they twice held a two-goal advantage, thanks to their compelling desire to attack Villa in the most expansive style possible, may well have tipped the scales in Moyes’ favour.

Yet the sheer refusal of Villa to accept defeat and the rousing way they shattered their opponents, for the second time in two league meetings, following Ashley Young’s late winner at Goodison Park back in December, was theatrical stuff.

The prize of a seeded place in the Europa League is scant reward, but that seems all that now on offer for both.

“With Arsenal winning it made it very difficult for both of us. If Villa had won, they would be in with a chance and if we had won, we would not have given up the fight,” said Moyes.

O’Neill was in no mood to be contradictory. “I would not disagree with David,” he said, but he still refuses to completely throw in the towel given the magnitude of Arsenal’s remaining fixtures.

Winning his remaining six games would make things interesting, but the fact that Gareth Barry’s penalty, for Joleon Lescott’s dangerous kick in the face of Stiliyan Petrov, ensured they avoided a fifth straight defeat in the league, points to a miserable recent run that can hardly generate too much optimism for O’Neill.

Everton were the catalyst for Villa’s alarming slump over the last couple of months.

Their 3-1 victory in the FA Cup back in February started a 10-game winless streak and the Moscow debacle, which was effectively an admission from O’Neill that his side were not good enough to cling on to fourth place.

He may well regret sacrificing the UEFA Cup now that he has been proved correct. What both managers have to do is find some way of improving their squads to push the top four even harder next term.

“The easy answer to that would be money. Ourselves and Villa have given it a good go to push the top boys and we have both ended up a little short,” said Moyes.

Not that the Everton manager will be disappointed with a UEFA Cup place, given the fact that he has had to slog for large parts of the season without Mikael Arteta, Tim Cahill, Yakubu and Joseph Yobo.

Even without those luminaries, his enterprising side still have hopes of upsetting Manchester United in the FA Cup semi-final at Wembley this Sunday.

Although they cannot expect the same kind of defensive charity. Marouane Fellaini capitalised on Zat Knight’s poor clearance to tap home Leighton Baines’ centre before Cahill lost the attentions of Curtis Davies to head Everton’s second.

Moyes still remained fearful of the “pace and power” of Villa and he was wise to be.

The sheer bullishness of John Carew’s close-range finish gave Villa something to cling to before half-time. Steven Pienaar’s wonderful individual effort eight minutes into the second half should have extinguished those hopes, but within two minutes James Milner’s free kick had deceived Tim Howard.

Perhaps it was fitting that Barry, who now seems certain to be playing Merseyside derbies for Liverpool next season, equalised from the spot, even if Moyes felt he had been harshly treated by Howard Webb.

The Everton manager was the only one who could muster a genuine complaint about any of this riotously entertaining game.

REFEREE: Howard Webb (Yorkshire) 7: Made two excellent decisions in not awarding penalties for Ashley Young’s diving. An excellent performance all round.

MATCH RATING: **** These two teams served up a riveting encounter earlier in the season at Goodison Park, but this was even better. The game never dropped below pulsating and was compulsive viewing from the first whistle to the last.


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