Visitors comeback earn point
TWO sensational Shane Long first-half strikes should have been the talk of the town – but a pair of Villa second-half goals stole a point for the visitors.
The Republic of Ireland international made it three goals in two games with goals in the third and 11th minutes to put the Baggies in derby dreamland.
Paul Lambert’s men also threatened on occasion during the first-half – but Stephane Sessegnon missed a golden opportunity to make it 3-0 before the break.
And he was made to pay for his miss as Karim El Ahmadi pulled one back on 67 before Ashley Westwood thundered home an equaliser 14 minutes from time.
The pattern of the game was the exact reverse of last season’s 2-2 draw between the two sides at The Hawthorns and extends the Baggies’ unbeaten run against their near neighbours to six games.
Steve Clarke was forced to make one change to his starting line-up with Goran Popov handed his first Barclays Premier League start of the season in place of the injured Liam Ridgewell at left-back.
Lambert opted to name the same Villa XI that beat Cardiff 2-0 at home before the international break.
The teams emerged to a cauldron of noise before both sets of fans respected a minute’s applause in honour of former Albion player and trainer Stuart Williams, who died, aged 83, earlier this month.
The Baggies then made a dream start with Long firing them into the lead after just three minutes.
The No.9 showed exceptional touch to stretch and bring down Chris Brunt’s 50-yard pass before beating Nathan Baker with his second and slotting past Brad Guzan into the bottom corner with a left foot finish from 18 yards.
Three minutes later, Boaz Myhill made a crucial save against his former club as he showed good reactions to stop Aleksandar Tonev’s shot finding the net following a deflection off Gareth McAuley.
Things got even better for the Baggies and Long on 11 as he pounced on Leandro Bacuna’s misplaced pass across defence.
The former Reading man had Baker twisting and turning and beat him for pace before coolly chipping the ball over Guzan and the recovering Baker, off the underside of the crossbar, and in to double the hosts’ lead.
Albion should have been 3-0 up in the 19th minute when Morgan Amalfitano raced free down the right and crossed to the back post where Sessegnon somehow volleyed wide from six yards, with the goal gaping.
The Claret and Blues came within inches of pulling a goal back on 24 when Christian Benteke nodded the ball down for Libor Kozak, whose 20-yard volley clipped off the top of the crossbar.
Long almost completed a first-half hat-trick seven minutes later when he picked up the ball just inside the Villa half and went through the gears to burst through the heart of the defence. He unleashed a right-foot drive from 18 yards that Guzan spilled – but Sessegnon was adjudged off-side as he chased down the rebound.
The visitors were still showing signs of intent and on 34 the Baggies were fortunate to see Benteke’s 20-yard goalbound drive hit his own man, El Ahmadi.
The Baggies settled for a two-goal lead at the break and the fans were then treated to a trip down memory lane, with Paul Scharner – once a matchwinner for Albion at Villa Park – making a special appearance on the pitch to take part in the Zoopla Half-Time Challenge.
Lambert went for broke on 57 as he made a triple substitution.
Kozak, Tonev and Yaouba Sylla made way for Gabby Agbonlahor, Andreas Weimann and Fabian Delph respectively.
The changes almost had the desired effect as the ball broke loose on the edge of the box from a Benteke and McAuley challenge on 59.
Weimann pounced to unleash a fierce drive, which deflected off Jonas Olsson and saw the wrong-footed Myhill somehow get enough of a touch on the ball to squeeze it around the post.
Sessegnon missed another glorious chance in the 64th minute as he fired over under pressure from Ciaran Clark from Amalfitano’s pull-back towards the penalty spot.
The Baggies should have been coasting towards victory but on 67 they let the visitors back into the game.
Weimann headed Bacuna’s right-wing cross forward and El Ahmadi crept in behind Popov before beating Myhill with a sweetly-struck volley from eight yards on the angle.
Clarke made a change in the 73rd minute as Sessegnon made way for new father James Morrison.
Popov made the cardinal sin of sending his clearing header from Agbonlahor’s deep cross back into the centre on 76. And Westwood was quick to punish him as he lashed home a ferocious drive inside the right-hand post from 25 yards to level the scores.
Eight minutes from the end, Victor Anichebe came on for Popov, with Brunt moving to left-back.
But try as they might, Albion could not break down the Villa rearguard again and had to settle for a draw.
ALBION (4-2-3-1): Myhill; Reid, McAuley, Olsson, Popov (Anichebe 82); Mulumbu, Yacob; Amalfitano, Sessegnon (Morrison 83), Brunt; Long. Subs not used: L Daniels (gk), Berahino, Dawson, Vydra, Anelka.
VILLA (4-4-2): Guzan; Bacuna, Vlaar, Baker, Clark; Sylla (Delph 57), Westwood, El Ahmadi, Tonev (Weimann 57); Kozak (Agbonlahor 57), Benteke. Subs not used: Steer (gk), Herd, Bowery, Lowton.
GOALS: Albion – Long (3, 11). Villa – El Ahmadi (67), Westwood (76).
BOOKINGS: Albion – Mulumbu (foul 54). Villa – Clark (foul 86).
REFEREE: M Oliver (Northumberland).
ALBION STARMAN: Shane Long.