Premier League – Heskey puts Villa third
Heskey joined from Wigan Athletic in a £3.5 million deal at the weekend and his reunion with O’Neill – who brought him through the ranks at Leicester – got off to the best possible start with a well-taken first-half volley.
The opening exchanges were scrappy at best with neither side settling as they would have liked and no real chances of note.
It was another debutant, Heskey, who opened the scoring after 21 minutes.
While the hosts might have felt aggrieved to be behind, by the end of the half Villa had had several chances to extend their lead.
Heskey demonstrated his immense strength, holding the ball up beautifully before laying it into the path of James Milner, who might have done better from 10 yards out.
Agbonlahor missed the best chance of the half when he raced on to a long ball to find himself in acres of space and one-on-one with James.
Although the Villa striker seemed intent on opening his body and slotting the ball across the giant keeper, he tamely dragged his shot inside the near post.
Portsmouth failed to impose themselves on the game after Heskey’s opener and might well have found themselves down to 10 men earlier had Peter Walton taken a different view of a challenge by Belhadj, who hacked at Craig Gardner, from behind, with no attempt to play the ball.
Portsmouth began to threaten in the second-half as they dominated possession and missed several chances which left Tony Adams tearing his hair out on the sideline.
Peter Crouch was the main culprit, as first he poked over the bar from five yards out and later rose to head wide from one of many Portsmouth corners.
Portsmouth’s hopes of an equaliser were not helped when Belhadj was sent off after picking up another needless yellow card.
After his shocking first-half challenge only saw him booked, the Algerian was then shown another yellow for dissent after a dubious handball decision.
Recent signing Pennant began to see more of the ball as Portsmouth pressed for an equaliser but the home side could not find a way to break Villa down despite having the lion’s share of possession throughout the second-half.
John Utaka, who replaced the ineffective Kanu in the second-half, went close late on as he jinked through the Villa defence only to be found wanting with his finish.
Villa are now two points ahead of fourth-placed Chelsea and only trailing Liverpool on goal difference, although Rafael Benitez’s side play Wigan on Wednesday.