Downing and Young (pictured) both provided much-needed cutting edge for Villa
By Chris Whyatt
Aston Villa quashed questions over manager Gerard Houllier's early reign by holding on for a hard-fought win over impressive local rivals West Brom.
Somen Tchoyi nearly gave the visitors a deserved lead but when his shot hit the bar Villa soon led as Stewart Downing hooked in Marc Albrighton's fine cross.
Returning striker Emile Heskey nodded a simple second with 11 minutes left from another tasty Albrighton delivery.
Paul Scharner's header pulled one back, but West Brom's late surge fell short.
Holding off a Baggies side boasting technique and invention, spirited Villa put Monday's woeful 3-0 defeat at Liverpool behind them to notch only their second win in the past 11 Premier League matches.
A much-changed team from the XI who started at Anfield fought hard to show that Houllier, who came in for strong criticism after the loss at his beloved former club, can revive a side which is still recovering from the shock departure of influential former boss Martin O'Neill.
Acting captain Richard Dunne was dropped, but Ashley Young was always dangerous on his return from suspension while youngsters Albrighton and Barry Bannan showed rich glimpses of promise.
But West Brom have talent in their ranks too, as the first close call of this West Midlands derby match showed.
Houllier 'relieved' to win
Jerome Thomas, a real threat on the left wing for the visitors most of the afternoon, hit a clever curling shot from long range in the sixth minute.
Striking the ball early, he nearly surprised Villa goalkeeper Brad Freidel but the ball drifted just wide.
With Heskey full of muscular running and Young dropping deep to collect the ball, Villa did possess more cutting edge going forward.
But the hosts still looked a little inexperienced in midfield, as a raft of misplaced passes allowed West Brom to slowly take control.
Able to play after shaking off a groin injury, Baggies midfielder Chris Brunt went close with a decent low shot after turning two home defenders in the box.
Heskey did have an unchallenged headed chance from Downing's decent free-kick but his connection was poor, with the ball slowly trickling towards the corner flag.
Having built up a head of steam with intelligent use of possession, the visitors were inches away from making a breakthrough after 20 minutes.
Patiently twisting defenders inside and out before unleashing a powerful shot, Cameroon midfielder Tchoyi nearly executed a repeat of his brilliant curler against Newcastle last week.
But, with Freidel well beaten, the ball came back off the bar.
Marc-Antoine Fortune smashed a shot just wide soon after but seconds later Villa had scored thanks to Albrighton's magic on the right wing, where his instinctive trickery - nut-megging Marek Cech - allowed the young Englishman to get to the bye-line.
His superb whipped cross was inches away from Young's forehead at the near post, but Downing sprinted to the back post to hook in the ball in with the studs on his trusted left boot from a tight angle.
Despite that apparent lack of justice, West Brom continued to probe with Brunt's admirable left foot at the heart of their best work.
Much of Villa's threat before the break came from right-back debutant Eric Lichaj, who would appear to possess a dangerous long throw to rival that of Stoke's Rory Delap.
But the hosts looked more confident after the break, and nearly added a second when Downing's angled cross floated across the box menacingly.
Albrighton, who trained with West Brom as a child, met the ball bravely, but his diving header flew just wide of the post.
Roberto Di Matteo's side, though, nearly equalised in the 55th minute as Gonzalo Jara fired a scuffed shot across the box which James Morrison, connecting cleanly with his shot, might have converted had he favoured placement over power.
With West Brom increasingly pushing forward, Young exposed them by foraging down the right wing to slide an enticing ball across the six-yard box - but nobody was there to convert what would have been a simple finish.
Young was a constant thorn in West Brom's side, who continually hacked away at his blur-of-motion legs like an explorer trekking in dense jungle.
We deserved more - Di Matteo
He won the corner that led to Heskey's fifth goal of the season, the ball falling loose for Albrighton to whip yet another lively ball across the box.
James Collins stretched hard to make a connection but, failing, the ball landed on unmarked Heskey's forehead and was diverted into the net from six yards out.
Yet Scharner put West Brom right back in contention for at least a point, rising high to power Brunt's pacy corner into the net via a deflection on the line.
Brunt then had a last-gasp chance to nick an equaliser but, shooting low after coolly finding space for himself in the box, Collins busted a gut to make a full-blooded block to ensure relieved Villa survived.
This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.