Villa edge closer to euro prize

2009-01-28 08:38

Portsmouth - Aston Villa underlined their Champions League credentials and pushed Portsmouth closer to the relegation dogfight with a battling 1-0 win at Fratton Park on Tuesday.

Emile Heskey's superbly-taken first-half strike settled the contest and allowed the England striker to celebrate his debut for his new club in style as Villa leapfrogged Chelsea to move into a share of second place in the table alongside Liverpool.

It was a gritty display that will have greatly boosted Martin O'Neill's squad's belief that they can finish the season in the top four and piled the pressure on to Arsenal, who are in fifth place and face a tough trip to Everton on Wednesday.

Portsmouth, still reeling from a shock FA Cup defeat by Swansea at the weekend, handed a debut to 1.5-million-pound midfielder Hayden Mullins and gave Nigerian playmaker Kanu his first league start of the campaign.

But it was Villa's 3.5-million-pound acquisition Heskey who made the bigger impact, firing his new side into the lead only 20 minutes into his debut.

The England centre forward latched on to Gabriel Agbonlahor's flick-on from a Brad Friedel clearance and fired past David James from just outside the area.

That proved to be the cue for a period of sustained Villa dominance and, after Mullins had fired a Jermaine Pennant cross over the bar for Pompey, Agbonlahor dragged his shot wide after getting clear of the home side's back four.

Pompey skipper Sol Campbell mysteriously failed to appear for the second half but that did not prevent the home side from pushing forward in search of an equaliser.

Villa looked dangerous on the break but their hosts' efforts should have yielded an equaliser when Pennant provided a near perfect low cross for Crouch just before the hour mark. Inexplicably, the beanpole forward contrived to lift his finish over the bar from six yards and Villa were off the hook.

Portsmouth's hopes of rescuing something from the match suffered a major setback when Nadir Belhadj received his second yellow card of the evening for a deliberate handball.

But the home side could still have snatched a point right at the end, when substitute John Utaka wriggled his way into the box only to fail to get a shot on target.