SAINTS 2 - ASTON VILLA 3

AERIAL BATTLE: Saints striker Peter Crouch collides with Aston Villa goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen.

AERIAL BATTLE: Saints striker Peter Crouch collides with Aston Villa goalkeeper Thomas Sorensen.

First published in 04-05 Season Daily Echo: Photograph of the Author by , Chief Sports Writer

BETWEEN 4.15pm and 5pm on Saturday we either witnessed the beginning of the end or the end of a very long beginning.

Saints' Premiership League future now hangs by a thread.

In a season of 'must-win' games this really had to be one - but Saints lost!

Maybe this was symptomatic of a season and a squad of players that have been destined for the drop since the start.

This result might prove a final nail in the coffin. Two goals up at half-time, and in control at home against a Villa team with a decidedly makeshift defence, Saints ended up throwing it away.

It made you feel for the first time that perhaps we were watching the beginning of the end of Saints in the Premiership for a while.

But then, despite the horrific result, all is not lost just yet.

Fans can only hope, even at this late stage of the season, that this disastrous result will prove to be a catalyst and spur Saints onto the kind of run they haven't managed so far this season.

Thankfully the inability of all the other teams around them has kept Saints in the hunt. In most other seasons they may well have been dead and buried by now.

West Brom have been on a great run but how much longer can they keep it going?

Palace and Norwich drew and both teams are equally struggling to win games - Palace have won just two out of their last 11 (and conceded 17 in their last seven) and City have only won two out of 17.

Any of the bottom four could still conceivably stay up, or go down.

What Saints need to realise now is that having better players is not necessarily going to be enough.

It's about who wants it most, who shows least fear and who has the bottle and the stomach for the fight.

Saints do have the better players of those bottom four teams, but at times you wonder about the other elements.

Saturday was a case in point.

In the first half Saints were rampant. They passed the ball neatly, looked in control, scored two goals and could have had more.

When they play well the quality in their side means they have the ability to tear teams apart.

The second half called into question the other elements you need, not just to survive but to win matches.

They didn't take the game by the scruff of the neck, the defence sat too deep and they paid the price.

Where was the team leader stepping out from the back and dominating proceedings?

Where was that desire to block everything come what may?

Norwich, Crystal Palace and West Brom have it - even if their players aren't as good.

Kevin Phillips displayed it and was very warmly welcomed back into the starting line-up.

It took him just four minutes to get on the scoresheet with a beautiful shot after teasing Thomas Sorensen into committing himself.

On 13 minutes it was 2-0 with a great through ball from Jamie Redknapp setting Peter Crouch through on goal and the big man made no mistake after a lovely first touch.

In a very open game there were chances galore for the rest of the half.

Villa threatened through Steven Davis' drive, Gareth Barry's missed free header from eight yards and the fit again Antti Niemi's save from Darius Vassell's run and shot.

But Saints looked as though they were more likely to add a third and Sorensen was called into action three times in six minutes to keep Harry Redknapp's men at bay.

The second half was a time for composure and discipline.

But instead Saints got nervous and retreated.

Carlton Cole had replaced the injured Vassell and Nolberto Solano was now on the right of midfield and they added another dimension to Villa's game.

On 55 minutes it was 2-1 when Solano found Cole and the striker stabbed the ball into the bottom corner.

Saints survived another scare when referee Andy D'Urso waved away Villa appeals that they had bundled the ball over the line as Niemi desperately clung on.

With 20 minutes left came two minutes of madness, the ultimate price of which could be unimaginable.

Thomas Hitzlsperger's cross fell to Solano at the far post, and the sub had time to control and slot the ball into the far corner.

Moments later Ulises De La Cruz drove the ball low into the area for Davis to instinctively turn home.

Suddenly Saints were 3-2 down.

Henri Camara was introduced and missed a couple of chances, but Saints had no belief or conviction they were going to get back into the game.

Just one goal down, and with five minutes left in such a crucial match, the half-empty stands told you the fans didn't either.

The beginning of the end?

Let's hope not.

The end of the beginning?

It'll be a good few weeks if it is ...

by Adam Leitch

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