Aston Villa's UEFA Champions League hopes suffered another setback when they slumped to a 2-1 home defeat against Tottenham Hotspur. Villa manager Martin O'Neill whisked his players away to Dubai last week to recharge their batteries, but they looked to be running on empty as goals from Jermaine Jenas and Darren Bent hammered a dent into Villa's ambitions of a top four finish. John Carew produced a late consolation goal, but Villa have only secured two league wins on their own turf since December and the optimism that had been building so steadily towards the end of last year is evaporating with each passing week.
This damaging defeat leaves Villa in fifth place, with an inferior goal difference behind Arsenal, and O'Neill must be growing increasingly worried at the alarming transformation of his side. It was only a month ago that hopes of the title were being spoken of in hushed tones around this particular corner of the West Midlands, but now even a fifth place finish is under threat.
It was sweet revenge for Spurs manager Harry Redknapp on his return to the ground where earlier this season, while in charge of his previous club Portsmouth, he was hit by a coin thrown by a Villa supporter. The first goal was always going to prove crucial. Neither of these sides had lost a league game this season in which they have opened the scoring.
And just as the masses of Villa fans in the giant Holte End began to bait Redknapp, they were swiftly silenced when the visitors took a fourth-minute lead. Aaron Lennon's cross from the right caught Brad Friedel in two minds and the goalkeeper's attempted punch went awry, presenting Jenas with a simple header from four yards. "Champions League, you're having a laugh," was the inevitable taunt from the visiting supporters.
Redknapp wants to be in Villa's position next season, but his mission for this campaign is rather more humble, with Premier League survival his only remit. They were forced to weather a substantial storm after taking such an early lead, with Didier Zokora enduring a nightmare afternoon at the hands of Ashley Young, the England international winger. He tormented Zokora for large spells in the first half before the makeshift defender was put out of misery by being substituted, but Young just could not deliver the killer cross.
Stiliyan Petrov drilled over while Gareth Barry forced a smart reflex save from the mercurial Heurelho Gomes in the 12th minute. Spurs finally carved out an opportunity two minutes before half-time when an excellent flicked pass from Jenas released Luka Modric in the area and the Croatian's fierce shot was palmed away by Friedel.
But Villa's frustrations only increased in injury time when Emile Heskey rose majestically to head Barry's volleyed cross against the crossbar. Indeed, there was a sense of sheer disbelief that Villa had failed to make their complete dominance count. Disbelief became incredulity four minutes into the second half when Spurs added a second.
Wilson Palacios' shot was saved by Friedel, but Robbie Keane pounced to beat the Villa keeper, with Bent scraping the ball over the goalline just to make sure. Substitute Carew headed a James Milner cross into the top corner with six minutes remaining, but there was to be no grandstand finish. For Villa, the result was about as depressing as the next two fixtures. Trips to Liverpool and Manchester United await.