Premier League

Bale buoyant on top-four push

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Sun, 10 Feb 2013 13:44:00

Christian Benteke and Charles N'Zogbia combined to lift Aston Villa out of the Premier League relegation zone with a priceless 2-1 victory over West Ham at Villa Park.

Benteke showed no sign of nerves as he rolled home from the penalty spot to break the deadlock with 16 minutes to go after N'Zogbia had been tripped in the area by Mark Noble.

And the former Wigan and Newcastle man then stepped up to curl home an outstanding free-kick to double the advantage for Paul Lambert's men four minutes later.

There was a nervy finish in store for the home supporters as Ashley Westwood could only loop a header from Joe Cole's dangerous curling cross over Brad Guzan and into his own net with three minutes to go.

And in the last of four added minutes, the Villa goalkeeper was called into action to make a crucial save, blocking a close range shot from Kevin Nolan at his near post.

The victory sees Villa climb to 17th in the Premier League table, pushing Reading down into the bottom three but only one point adrift of the Midlands side.

The first half at Villa Park was an instantly forgettable affair, with the only incident of note coming in the opening exchanges, when Andreas Weimann produced one of the misses of the season in only the second minute.

Benteke fired in a shot from range, which Jussi Jaaskelainen failed to deal with, and it looked as though all Weimann had to do was roll the ball into the gaping goal, but he somehow fired wide of the target to widespread disbelief.

That incident seemed to shake the confidence of the young Austrian, and it was no surprise when he was replaced as part of a double change in the 63rd minute, with Darren Bent joining the fray.

The England international has struggled for opportunities this season, but he was immediately into the action, although perhaps not as he had expected, clearing off the line from Andy Carroll following Matt Taylor's corner.

Sam Allardyce's side looked to hit Carroll whenever possible, but the England international was well marshalled in the main by Ciaran Clark, who also produced two crucial clearances from under his own bar in a much-improved second half.

All the real drama was reserved for the closing 16 minutes, with Benteke and N'Zogbia putting the Holte End in full voice despite the dramatic conclusion, with Villa recording their first Premier League victory since the 3-1 win away to Liverpool on 15 December.

Midfielder Flood was again instrumental as new boss Jackie McNamara made it back-to-back victories with a 3-1 Premier League win over Hearts at Tannadice on Saturday.

Flood notched a quality second goal in the second half as new manager McNamara watched his side move into sixth place in the SPL thanks to Johnny Russell's second-minute strike and substitute Michael Gardyne's 89th-minute clincher.

Flood has been given a new lease of life since McNamara replaced departed boss Peter Houston recently, and Tangerines team-mate Mackay-Steven was quick to sing his praises after beating the Jambos.

He said: "Willo has been outstanding for us in the past two games.

"His goal was quality and his overall performance was of the highest order.

"Willo is big player for the club.

"He's the one who really gets everyone up for training every day and urges them on.

"Willo expects the highest standards from those around him and he's always there to do his bit as well.

"He looks as though he's really enjoying his football right now and long may that continue, along with the rest of the lads."

Mackay-Steven was on the receiving end of a controversial first-half challenge from Hearts midfielder Ryan Stevenson which earned the Tynecastle man a red card from referee Willie Collum.

Mackay-Steven felt it was harsh but vowed not to change his attacking ways.

He said: "I won't be changing my ways.

"That's how I play. I like taking players on as that's a big part of my game.

"Sometimes these kind of challenges happen but it doesn't put me off.

"We're on a decent wee run just now and just want to try to continue if for as long as possible.

"We've got a big game coming up away to Celtic next and we can hopefully go there with some confidence."

Meanwhile, Hearts manager John McGlynn may appeal Stevenson's sending-off once he watches it over again on television.

He said: "I'll have to see it again. When I do that then we can maybe look at appealing it.

"The people who've seen it thought it was a bit harsh but personally I would need to watch it for myself."

McNamara saluted his players for their second victory on the bounce since taking charge.

He said: "I've got to praise the lads for their effort and commitment.

"They started the game really well and my only disappointment was that we lost a goal."

The 34-year-old initially found it frustrating when he felt he was becoming a stand-in for others at St Johnstone but he now realises Hibs boss Pat Fenlon has to pick what he feels is the best team available.

Maybury has been an integral part of the Hibs team since signing just before the start of the season, making 18 starts and four substitute appearances.

But if Tim Clancy recovers from a hamstring problem before Monday night's Premier League clash against St Johnstone, Maybury appreciates he might lose his place despite helping the team to a Scottish Cup win over Aberdeen last weekend.

The Irishman said: "I understand there are going to be stages where I am in and out of the team.

"I knew that before I came here so it's just about making sure you are doing the right things in training so that, when you come in, you grasp that opportunity and help the team out.

"When it first happened in the last couple of years, it was frustrating and you are banging down the manager's door.

"But I think I understand the role now, I'm quite comfortable with it and I accept that I'll not play every week.

"Before I came here I was used more to fill in a hole. It was right-back, left-back and 'have you ever played in midfield?' sort of thing. Then 'can you play centre-back?' And I would stand on my tiptoes and say 'yes, of course'.

"There is no excuse with being in and out of the team. Obviously you still get frustrated if you have played well and think you deserve to be in.

"But I understand when he (Fenlon) picks a team he is picking the best team that will hopefully win the game. So I have adjusted to it over the last couple of years."

Maybury has not lost any of his enthusiasm for the game in the latter years of his playing career. In fact, the opposite is the case as he is throwing himself into the coaching side of the game.

"I love training," the former Hearts and Leicester player said. "I don't know anything different. I still get nervous before games. It's all I know, it's all I want to do.

"I am doing my coaching badges and am becoming obsessed with that side of it. I am watching all sorts of bizarre clips and reading articles and just trying to look and listen and learn and see what I can pick up.

"I start my A licence in the summer and help out when I can with the under-20s here and I really enjoy that.

"I recently spent a couple of days down watching Cardiff play. I am becoming obsessed with it and asking lots of questions, but I want to play as long as I can because there's nothing quite like it.

"I knew a long time ago it was something I wanted to do. You think you have plenty of time but it creeps up on you.

"It helps a little bit with your game, how you can affect others rather than just thinking about your own game."

Hibs are looking for their third win over St Johnstone this season but they are only one point ahead of the Perth side in the SPL and Maybury expects a tight affair against his former club.

"The two times we have played them already, they can probably say they feel a bit aggrieved we have won them both," he said.

"There was nothing in the games but somehow we have managed to come out on top both times.

"We know it's going to be tight and it could be about who gets the first goal or takes their chance."

With Celtic all but guaranteed to take top spot and the Champions League space that goes with it, the teams finishing in second and third places this year will qualify for the Europa League, along with the winners of the Scottish Cup.

Aberdeen exited that competition last week but Brown is confident Europe is still a possibility despite the disappointment of Saturday's 0-0 draw.

Brown said: "Everyone in the dressing room is enthusiastic and I'm still optimistic about a good finish to the season. We've got a dozen games left, and after we lost the first game of the season, harshly, to Celtic we went on an unbeaten run of 11 games.

"I think we can do the same again. There's enough in the dressing room to do that, and we can hopefully get more wins than draws this time.

"I was in the dressing room for quite a while, and there's a real determination to finish with a flourish. We can see that we can be the better team in games and we've just got to translate that into victories."

The former Scotland boss refused to comment on the second booking that saw Mark Reynolds sent off, the defender having been penalised for what referee John Beaton deemed a deliberate handball as he charged down Kenny McLean's 73rd-minute shot.

"You know I never make comment about that [referees], and I'm not going to change the habit."

St Mirren's in-form striker Esmael Goncalves failed to score for the first time in four games since joining the Buddies on loan from Rio Ave last month, but the striker had the best chance of the match with five minutes left.

Having been played in by Paul McGowan, the striker attempted to lift the ball over the onrushing Jamie Langfield, only for the goalkeeper to block well.

That was a chance would have left manager Danny Lennon disappointed his side did not earn a victory, but he pointed to the strides his side have made to be in a position where taking only a point from Pittodrie represents a disappointment.

"It shows you where the club has progressed from. We might still be at the bottom end of the table, but with the league so competitive, we find ourselves nine points away from second place. A couple of years ago, we were 36 or 37 points away from second.

"We also got another clean sheet, which is so important. Over the season, that has probably been our Achilles Heel."

The Australia midfielder, signed from the Central Coast Mariners in January for a reported fee of around £400,000, made an impressive debut in the 3-1 Premier League win at Inverness on Saturday.

The 20-year-old was one of nine changes made by the Hoops boss with the first leg of Celtic's Champions League last-16 clash with Juventus at Parkhead on Tuesday night in mind.

Rogic set up Kris Commons to cancel out Nick Ross' opener before goals from debutant defender Rami Gershon and Venezuelan striker Miku stretched the Hoops' lead to 18 points over second-placed Inverness at the top of the SPL table.

Lennon revealed he left Rogic out of his European squad to stay loyal to those who had got the club to the knockout stages and the Hoops new boy said: "I got into the club a week ago so I can't have any complaints."

However, Rogic, has vowed to win his way into Lennon's first-team plans.

"You go out every game trying to make a statement, I guess, and show him what you can do," he said.

"I will keep working on the training pitch and the coach will see me every day so I will keep going.

"It's a different style over here so it might take me a little while before I get used to it and before I can play my best football but I am quite happy with my first game.

"I think it was a good performance all round from the team.

"Obviously a lot of players were rested but I think we still had a pretty strong squad and there were some very good players guiding me through the match which made it a lot easier."

Lennon's makeshift side won with relative ease which might be a bit worrying for those who are looking for more competition in the SPL.

Caley have lost their last four games, including a League Cup semi-final exit on penalties to Hearts and a Scottish Cup defeat at Kilmarnock.

However, manager Terry Butcher insists his side can get back on track against Kilmarnock on Wednesday night.

"There will be spells in the season when things go against you," he said.

"But we know we know we have the players who can turn it around.

"We are hurting at the moment because we know we should have got something from the last four matches but we haven't so we move on.

"We are still a threat, we are still scoring goals and we will always do that.

"The heads are up and we look forward to Wednesday."

Santos, 29, was signed from Fenerbahce for £6.8million in August 2011.

However, the Brazil international has fallen down the pecking order at Emirates Stadium behind England left-back Kieran Gibbs, and following the deadline day arrival of Spaniard Nacho Monreal is now surplus to requirements.

While there has not yet been any official comment from Arsenal, a picture of Santos arriving in his homeland, where he last played for Corinthians in 2008/2009, greeted by cheering fans was posted on Twitter.

Meanwhile, Arsenal forward Lukas Podolski put a post on his official Twitter account which read: "@Andre-santos27 We will miss you man, I wish u all the very best #Gunner God bless you".

Santos made 26 appearances for Arsenal, scoring four goals.

It remains to be confirmed whether the transfer will be permanent or a loan deal.

Tottenham are four points ahead of fifth-placed Arsenal following their Bale-inspired 2-1 win over Newcastle at White Hart Lane.

Spurs were in a much healthier position at this exact time last season. A 5-0 thumping of the Magpies at home kept Spurs in third place - some 10 points ahead of the Gunners - but their season soon began to unravel.

Speculation that Harry Redknapp was going to be appointed as England manager affected the squad, and the Londoners went on to record just four more wins, leaving them praying for a Bayern Munich win over Chelsea that did not materialise.

Spurs won four of their final 13 games the season before, again costing them a place in the Champions League, but Bale is determined for that not to happen again this term.

"In recent years we have kind of gone off the boil a little at this time of the season but I think the lads have got a lot more confidence," Bale said.

"We have learned from our mistakes from previous years and now we can be a lot stronger going in to the finishing end of the season so I hope we can do it."

Had Bale not performed as he has been doing recently, Tottenham would be well off the pace for Champions League qualification.

The Wales winger scored a crucial equaliser against Norwich last week and followed it up by hitting the winner in Spurs' 1-0 win at West Brom four days later.

One week on it was the same story again, although this time he hit two superb strikes - a marvellous free-kick and a breathtaking solo effort - to grab the three points against the Magpies.

Typically for the grounded 23-year-old, he shunned the personal plaudits that came his way after the match and instead claimed he was unhappy with his performance because he missed a couple of late chances to take home the match ball.

"I was absolutely fuming (that I didn't get a hat-trick)," Bale told Spurs TV Online. "I missed a few chances, especially the one with my right foot, but the most important thing was that we got the three points to put the pressure on the teams above us and below.

"I am enjoying my game at the moment and the team is playing well, which always makes it easier."

Spurs manager Andre Villas-Boas has brought the best out of Bale this season, allowing the wide man to drift in from the flanks and operate down the middle, leading to comparisons between the former Southampton man and Cristiano Ronaldo.

The Spurs boss said: "He is such a great player. These moments of individual brilliance always help the team. "The best teams in the world count on the best players and they are able to make the difference for you so it was a great game for him."

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