Boxing Day blank at The Brit

With Peter Crouch and Darren Bent unable to make their returns from

illness and injury respectively, both sides lacked attacking

quality in the first half, although Villa did hit the woodwork

through Emile Heskey, who was subsequently forced off with a

recurrence of his Achilles problem. There were chances at either

end as a poor game opened up somewhat after the interval, and

Wilson almost broke the deadlock in the 69th minute when his header

– from Matthew Etherington’s corner – struck the underside of the

bar before being bundled away by Gabriel Agbonlahor, with replays

suggesting the whole of the ball was not over the line. Defeat

would have been harsh on Villa, who belied their recent frailties

from set-pieces by defiantly standing up to a Stoke side renowned

for their aerial prowess. Indeed, Alex McLeish may feel his side

should have taken all three points after seeing them create the

better chances from open play in a match low on quality but high on

endeavour. Villa remain 12th in the Premier League table, five

points behind Stoke in eighth. The Potters, who had won four league

games in a row for the first time prior to Wednesday’s defeat at

Manchester City, started the match brightly and Robert Huth headed

over an Etherington cross in the second minute. Heskey came

agonisingly close to putting Villa ahead in the 21st minute, his

header from Charles N’Zogbia’s corner striking Thomas Sorensen’s

left-hand post with the goalkeeper well beaten. After becoming the

first player to be booked, for a disputed foul on Agbonlahor, Huth

then went close again, having been picked out at the far post by

Dean Whitehead’s free-kick. The away team enjoyed a decent spell

prior to the interval and Stiliyan Petrov blasted an effort wide

following another break sparked by Ciaran Clark’s thunderous

challenge on Whitehead. Stoke responded, however, and Villa

goalkeeper Brad Guzan was forced to make a vital interception at

Kenwyne Jones’ feet after the Trinidadian striker had looked to get

on the end of his own flick-on. Heskey failed to emerge for the

second half, so Nathan Delfouneso was introduced by McLeish. After

Carlos Cuellar had produced an important header at the back post to

prevent Jonathan Walters from connecting with Ryan Shotton’s cross,

the substitute came close to giving Villa the lead in the 53rd

minute. Agbonlahor broke clear down the left before squaring for

his strike partner, but Delfouneso’s toe-poked finish was blocked

by Sorensen with his legs. Unsurprisingly, Stoke’s main threat

continued to come from dead-ball situations and Huth headed over

for a third time, from an Etherington corner, shortly after the

hour mark had passed. Villa, however, remained sporadically

dangerous in open play and N’Zogbia dragged a right-footed shot

wide of the near post after cutting in from the left flank. Stoke

were left cursing their luck moments later as Wilson met

Etherington’s centre with a firm header from 10 yards out, only to

be denied by a combination of crossbar and Agbonlahor. Sorensen

fumbled a tame N’Zogbia free-kick in the 75th minute, but no

visiting player was in a position to take advantage. With long

throw specialist Rory Delap having been introduced in place of

Wilson Palacios, Villa were forced to face an increasing aerial

bombardment in the closing stages. Yet it was the visitors who

arguably looked more likely to snatch all three points as they

attacked with pace and vigour. A late Delap throw almost brought

joy for Stoke, but Petrov’s header drifted narrowly wide of his own