Baggies on wrong end of thriller
ALBION were unfortunate to finish on the wrong end of a seven-goal derby thriller as Pepe Mel suffered the first defeat of his reign as head coach.
With echoes of the first meeting between the two sides this term, the Baggies romped into a two-goal lead in the opening nine minutes thanks to Chris Brunt’s sensational opener and Fabian Deph’s own goal.
But, as in the Hawthorns encounter, Villa came back to level through Andreas Weimann’s 12th-minute volley and Leandro Bacuna’s 25th-minute effort.
The hosts then went in front as Delph scored at the right end on 37 – but the half-time score was level as Youssouf Mulumbu notched his first goal of the season two minutes before the break.
The goals dried up after the interval in a half the Baggies had the better of.
But they were left ruing a Diego Lugano miss on 55 and nine minutes later the Uruguay captain compounded his misery as he brought down Christian Benteke for the decisive penalty that the big Belgian converted himself.
Mel made two changes to his starting XI as Victor Anichebe and Mulumbu came in for the benched Matej Vydra and Zoltan Gera, who was left out altogether.
Paul Lambert was forced into one change as Matt Lowton replaced the injured Gabby Agbonlahor.
The Baggies made the ideal start as Liam Ridgewell – back on his old stomping ground – played the ball inside for Brunt. The skipper turned before spanking a 25-yard half-volley past the despairing dive of Brad Guzan, who could only watch the ball fly inside his left-hand post.
Just five minutes later, the visitors were in dreamland as Brunt slid a free-kick down the left-hand side of Villa’s defence and Morrison delivered a low cross that Delph could only turn into his own net at the near post.
But their high spirits lasted less than three minutes as Lugano inadvertently headed Guzan’s long punt back towards his own goal, allowing Weimann to volley the ball over Ben Foster and pull a goal back.
The hosts were soon on the attack again in the 18th minute as Bacuna ran onto Weimann’s centre but sent his skidding shot just wide of the right-hand post, with Foster in control.
Two minutes later, Bacuna ran free from another ball over the top. He lobbed the onrushing Foster but Jonas Olsson was on hand to head the danger clear as Bacuna looked to get a second touch in front of an open goal.
Foster was called into action again on 21 as he dived to his right to hold Weimann’s goalwards prod after Ciaran Clark had headed Ashley Westwood’s corner back towards the six-yard box.
Albion were temporarily down to ten men as Nicolas Anelka limped off down the tunnel on 24. A minute later, the Claret and Blues cashed in. The ball rebounded kindly into the path of Lowton and his low cross from the right was forced home by Bacuna despite Foster getting a hand to his effort.
The equaliser was quickly followed by Morgan Amalfitano’s introduction as Anelka’s replacement.
The stuff of dreams turned into nightmares eight minutes before the break as Delph brought down Westwood’s long aerial ball and jinked past Steven Reid before thundering a 15-yard strike past Foster at the near post and in off the underside of the crossbar to steal the lead.
Five minutes later, Benteke flicked on another high ball and Delph delivered a perfect return pass that saw the Belgium international cut inside Olsson, only to see Foster get a crucial touch to guide the ball inches past the right-hand post.
It proved to be a turning point. Albion swiftly went down the other end and some lovely one touch passing saw Anichebe feed Morrison who slid the ball through to Mulumbu, with the DR Congo ace coolly slotting home low past Guzan from eight yards.
After everyone inside a freezing Villa Park caught their breath during the half-time interval, Guzan was fortunate to see the ball spin to safety as he spilled Amalfitano’s 25-yard strike.
Lugano missed a golden opportunity to put the Baggies ahead again two minutes later as he swooped in on Brunt’s back-post free-kick – but headed agonisingly wide of the right-hand post.
Albion shot themselves in the foot in the 63rd minute as Lugano pulled down Benteke in the box from Bacuna’s right-wing cross and referee Mark Clattenburg pointed to the spot. Benteke picked himself up to calmly slot home the penalty and restore Villa’s lead on 64.
Benteke looked to have wriggled free of Olsson from Weimann’s ball into the box in the 72nd minute – but Foster was quickly off his line to toe poke the ball clear.
Moments later, Olsson showed huge determination to win the ball back and tee up Anichebe, whose blockbuster from the edge of the box flew just past the right-hand angle of post and bar.
Mel went for broke in the 76th minute as Saido Berahino came on for Reid and Amalfitano moved to right-back.
That was swiftly followed by a change from Lambert as he brought on Yacouba Sylla for Karim El Ahmadi and shortly afterwards Nathan Baker for Weimann. With ten minutes to go, Anichebe made way for Vydra.
Albion continued to pressurise the Villa goal until the final whistle and, at the death, Lugano’s header from Amalfitano’s right-wing cross was deflected just over for a corner.
VILLA (4-3-1-2): Guzan; Lowton (Holt 65), Clark, Vlaar, Bertrand; Westwood, Delph, Ahmadi (Sylla 76); Bacuna; Weimann (Baker 79), Benteke. Subs not used: Steer (gk), Helenius, Albrighton, Tonev.
ALBION (4-3-3): Foster; Reid (Berahino 76), Lugano, Olsson, Ridgewell; Mulumbu, Yacob, Morrison; Anelka (Amalfitano 25), Anichebe (Vydra 80), Brunt. Subs not used: Myhill (gk), Jones, McAuley, Dorrans.
GOALS: VILLA – Weimann (12), Bacuna (25), Delph (37), Benteke (pen 64). ALBION – Brunt (4), Delph (og 9), Mulumbu (43).
BOOKINGS: VILLA – Holt (simulation 89). ALBION – Lugano (dissent 68), Brunt (foul 70), Berahino (dissent 88).
REFEREE: M Clattenburg (County Durham).
ALBION STARMAN: Chris Brunt.