This was a tale of Darren Bent’s third touch and a touchy situation. This was a classic tale of a seemingly spurned star striker rising from the bench, equalising quickly, so making a point in every sense.
Whatever the depth of the tension between Bent and his manager Paul Lambert,
the pair need to work in tandem to drive
Bent is such an able finisher, such a better option than the raw Christian Benteke, that his frustration at not starting was understandable, particularly with the England manager Roy Hodgson watching on. Bent took his 80th-minute goal brilliantly, keeping his balance when the ball fell to him and driving it unerringly into the net. It was an archetypal, instinctive Bent finish. The Holte End, which had hardly been quiet, lifted the decibel level a few notches higher.
Bent had been kept in reserve for 70 minutes, partly because Villa had won without him at Manchester City in the Capital One Cup. Lambert is not the type of manager to be in thrall to gilded reputation, and clearly wanted to give his signing, Benteke, a chance to bed in.
Bent’s post-match critique – “It’s been a difficult couple of weeks, losing the captaincy first off and then finding out I wasn’t playing” – was hardly an attack on Lambert, who has a steel in his eyes that does not brook dissent, but a brief chat between the pair would be beneficial for the club.
When it was revealed to Lambert that this was Villa’s first Premier League goal from a corner since November 2010, he joked that “I’ll probably get blamed for that [run] as well”. The concept of managerial culpability was much discussed here, revolving around Bent’s initial presence on the bench, yet Lambert has earned the right to be trusted.
His work at Colchester United, then Norwich City, demonstrated his abilities, organising teams well, making good players better. Villa are fortunate to have him.
The Scot is a talented, driven manager, just the man to revitalise Villa.
There was a cohesion about their play yesterday, a commitment to move the
ball cleverly forward through Karim El Ahmadi and Brett Holman. There is
also a resilience, captured in that victory over City, and in recovering
here against Steve Clarke’s well-drilled
The headlines will be taken by Lambert and Bent but they could easily have been claimed by Ben Foster and Shane Long. Goran Popov and Jonas Olsson also shone for Clarke. Foster was particularly outstanding, delivering a performance that must have made rueful viewing for Hodgson as he sat in the smart seats.
Foster, who remains in self-imposed international exile, reacted superbly to tip over a left-footed volley from Holman. West Brom’s keeper then timed his run through traffic perfectly, rising to intercept Marc Albrighton’s cross.
It was a decent half, lent an emotional resonance after 19 minutes when the home fans stood for their salute to their No 19, Stiliyan Petrov, Villa’s club captain who is in remission from cancer. West Brom supporters were quick to join in the applause.
The man wearing the armband yesterday, Ron Vlaar, then set off upfield like a dreadnought, combining with Gabby Agbonlahor, a forceful presence, and Holman before Benteke curled a shot wastefully wide.
Benteke, the young Belgian still learning his craft, showed little yesterday to indicate he should start ahead of Bent.
Foster continued to frustrate Villa, somehow stretching out a hand to push away Holman’s deflected strike. Echoing Foster’s class, Long impressed for West Brom, working hard in the lone striker’s role and finally earning reward six minutes into the second half. James Morrison, a very mobile influence, darted down the right before firing the ball in low and hard. Vlaar failed to cut out the cross, allowing Long to apply the finish. It was a particularly sweet moment for the Irishman, who suffered a bad injury when challenged crudely by Alan Hutton here last year.
Villa rallied, attacking the Holte End with increasing urgency. Joe Bennett drilled a free-kick wide. Charles N’Zogbia came on followed by Bent. Vlaar headed over. Then Barry Bannan came on. Villa had to be wary about all-out attack as Romelu Lukaku had come on for Long, and the Belgian was always a muscular and pacy menace on the counter.
Still Villa pushed for the equaliser. N’Zogbia went close. Constant encouragement flowed from their fans, who also screamed their anger at the leisurely way Foster was addressing goal-kicks. West Brom’s keeper was finally beaten as first Vlaar and Ciaran Clark threatened before Bent pounced expertly. His manager celebrated with a brief Jose Mourinho-type dash down the touchline.
Villa went for the winner. The Holte End was now in danger of losing its collective voice. When Olsson sliced a cross into the crowd, the recipients issued a huge roar. N’Zogbia then sent Matthew Lowton down the inside-right channel and the full-back found Bent. A sigh of frustration tumbled down from the Holte End as Bent just failed to impart sufficient placement on his shot.
Lukaku continued to prowl, continued to keep Brad Guzan on his toes.
He even clipped a post at one point with Guzan beaten. But when the final whistle was blown by Anthony Taylor, who handled the derby judiciously, all eyes turned to Lambert and Bent. Villa’s future will be all the brighter if they can work together.