THIS has been a season of extremes for Aston Villa.
Irresistible in the first half of the season, when qualification Champions League looked a probability, not a possibility, they are currently stuck in the sort of slump which would have sparked fears of relegation had they not been descending from such heady heights.
Martin O’Neill’s side were lying in fourth spot at the start of March, six points clear of a stuttering Arsenal, but this draw all but ended any lingering hopes of joining Man United, Liverpool and Chelsea in Europe’s premier competition.
Diego Tristan’s late header, which cancelled out Emile Heskey’s opener for the hosts, means Villa are now seven points adrift of the Gunners, who have a match in hand, and have collected just two points from the last seven matches.
“It is going to be tough to finish fourth now,” Curtis Davies, the defender, said. “I know Arsenal are involved other competitions, including the Champions League, and they are going to be focusing on them as well so you can hope that they are going to slip up.
“But, to be entirely honest, I don’t really see Arsenal slipping up too many times over the course of the rest of the season.
“Because we were in fourth place for so long and looking so strong, then it is a tough pill to swallow.”
Europa League football will be considered a disappointment for Villa, but for West Ham it is a triumph simply to be in contention. Gianfranco Zola, currently in talks to turn his rolling, 12-month contract into a longer deal — has worked wonders since his appointment last autumn, and defender Matthew Upson believes it is vital he is given time to build on his early success.
“The longer he can stay at the club, the better,” he said. “I think next season will be very interesting.”
ASTON VILLA (4-4-2): Friedel 7, L Young 6, Davies 7, Cuellar 6, Shorey 6, Milner 6(Gardner 81, 5), Petrov 6, Barry 7, A Young 6, Heskey 7 (Delfouneso 71, 5), Carew 6.
Subs Not Used: Guzan, Sidwell, Knight, Salifou, Reo-Coker.
WEST HAM (4-4-2): Green 6, Tomkins 6, Upson 7, Collins 5 (Dyer 33, 6), Ilunga 6, Neill 6, Boa Morte 6, Stanislas 6 (Nsereko 74, 5), Noble 6, Di Michele 5 (Sears 81, 6), Tristan 6.
Subs Not Used: Lastuvka, Lopez, Payne, Hines.
REFEREE: Rob Styles (Hampshire) 5: Failed to award a penalty when Tomkins handled in the second half, although he was unsighted.
MATCH RATING: *** Good game, full of fluent football, and a fair result.
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