Team: Green, Isla (Traore), Onuoha, Caulker, Hill, Phillips, Sandro (Doughty), Barton, Kranjcar (Henry), Austin, Zamora
Subs Not Used: McCarthy, Mitchell, Hoilett, Grego-Cox
Attendance: 33,708 (including 1,214 R’s fans)
In the tense, tight world at the bottom of the Premier league, a land where the supposed dead men walking have shown signs of life, this was a manic, utterly absorbing relegation scrap ultimately satisfying neither side.
Aston Villa were probably the more relieved after Christian Benteke’s late free kick secured a point, taking them to 16th place after an evening when the fluctuating score-line had meant Tim Sherwood’s side also occupied 18th, 17th and 15th positions.
Yet Benteke ended the game on his haunches, shaking his head, frustrated that his work yielded only one point as well as one match-ball.
There was some hope for Queen’s Park Rangers, who climbed over Burnley into 18th. After five successive defeats appeared to have condemned them to a swift return to the Championship, QPR have now taken four points in two games, both in the West Midlands, with a win at West Bromwich Albion followed by this draw.
They were frustrated with Benteke’s late equaliser, and there was an animated exchange between Chris Ramsey and his centre-half, Clint Hill, who conceded the free kick, but QPR have given themselves a chance. With Charlie Austin, who elegantly scored his 17th Premier League goal of the season, in their ranks, QPR always have a chance.
What should also encourage the West Londoners is that their manager, Ramsey, directly affected the game with his second-half changes. He responded to the pace of Benteke and Gabriel Agbonlahor by switching to a back three, a move that gave Rob Green more protection.
QPR do not look like a team bereft of confidence. They have certainly not accepted what many considered their fate. In the battle to avoid relegation, this was probably a more soothing result for 13th-placed Newcastle United and 14th-placed West Brom, now nine and seven points clear of the drop zone respectively.
Sunderland, 15th and ahead of Villa on goal difference but with a game in hand, seem to have been re-invigorated by Dick Advocaat and have been buoyed by victory in the Tyne-Wear derby.
Hull City, who have taken only two points from 15, will be alarmed at their 17th position, although they have a game in hand and two points over QPR.
Burnley and Leicester City, who occupy the bottom two positions, have determined managers and will not surrender their Premier League status lightly.
The stakes are so high that nerves riddled the defences here. All at Villa and QPR know the financial implications of falling off the Premier League gravy train, ranging from the impact on players, whose contracts would be reduced should they tumble into the Championship, and for club staff with inevitable redundancies.
QPR would face Financial Fair Play complications and the possible departure of Austin while Randy Lerner’s hopes of selling Villa would be so complicated.
Villa had known they needed to respond to successive losses to Swansea City and Manchester United but fell behind early. Joey Barton hoisted the ball right to Austin, who beat Kieran Richardson and crossed. Leandro Bacuna’s clearance was poor, headed across goal.
Matt Phillips met the ball, nodding it back in where Bobby Zamora was too determined for Ron Vlaar. Zamora chested the ball down, drifted left, turned and lifted the ball to the far post where the unmarked Phillips headed home in front of a horrified Holte End: 0-1.
And so began a pulsating game. Villa hit back through Benteke. Within three minutes, they exploited hesitant defending to equalise. Ciaran Clark nipped in to nick the ball in midfield, touching it to Jack Grealish, who nudged it left to Fabian Delph.
The England international noticed QPR’s right-back, Mauricio Isla, out of position, and rolled the ball down the line for Benteke. The Belgian cut inside, beating the back-tracking Isla, and shooting past Rob Green via a deflection: 1-1.
Tim Sherwood’s celebration involved ripping off his gilet, although this was partly in anger at Villa’s defending earlier. The gloves were certainly off.
Sherwood’s team were moving up a gear, responding to the early threat posed by QPR, looking short for the subtle skills of Grealish or long for the pace and power of Agbonlahor and Benteke. Grealish’s presence for 70 minutes particularly delighted the Villa faithful, the youngster impressing on his first Premier League start.
He did not look in awe of the close attentions of Barton. Grealish’s socks were at half-mast but his standards were high until he tired in the second half.
Villa’s pressure brought a deserved second just after the half-hour from a magnificent counter-attack. Carlos Sanchez cleared on the edge of his area, and Agbonlahor was off and running, speeding through the middle, taken out by Sandro but still managing to play the ball through to Benteke.
Hill was totally bamboozled by the trickery and pace of Benteke, failing to show the Belgian wide. Benteke calmly stroked the ball past the wrong-footed Green: 2-1.
As Benteke leapt up in celebration, Sherwood was running down the touchline, punching the air. His team were responding to his words to stand up and be counted, not being one of the “icing-on-the-cake players”; this was perceived as a criticism of Carles Gil, the deft Spaniard who did not even make the bench.
Sherwood had put his friendship with Ramsey to one side even admitting he was blocking any calls from his former Spurs colleague. Ramsey is so highly regarded as a coach by Sherwood that there is talk of his joining Villa in the summer.
Yet it was Ramsey the manager who then made his mark after 52 minutes, taking off Isla and Niko Kranjcar for Armand Traore and Karl Henry and going to three at the back. There was suddenly more belief in the hooped ranks.
Within three minutes, QPR were level. Phillips drilled in a corner that was met by the unmarked Hill, whose header flew past Brad Guzan: 2-2.
QPR then seized the lead. Again Richardson was caught out, being beaten by Phillips, who picked out Austin, QPR’s No.9 controlled the ball, teeing it up for his second touch, drilling his shot low past Guzan: 2-3.
Villa would not surrender. Hill gifted the hosts a free kick with a foul on Charles N’Zogbia. Only Zamora of QPR’s wall jumped, and Benteke’s free kick was able to whistle through, kissing the post on its way in as the Holte End roared partly with relief.
Henry Winter – The Telegraph