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Alpay takes first-act plaudits; Leicester City 0 Aston Villa 0.

Any number of explosive scenarios seemed possible on the Premiership's opening day at Filbert Street, yet the one which materialised was satisfying rather than sensational.

You would have bet your mortgage on David Ginola or Stan Collymore providing the focal point of a fixture which has quite a history of incident and controversy. Instead, all the post-match attention focused on a man who looked as safe as houses.

If Ginola's Aston Villa debut was somewhat subdued, reaching an early conclusion when he was replaced just past the hour mark, fellow new boy Alpay Ozalan was everything manager John Gregory had hoped for - and considerably more.

Maybe it was the Frenchman who attracted all the attention when the duo were paraded at Villa Park last month, but the 27-year-old Turk commanded centre stage on Saturday.

Of all the places to make a claret-and-blue debut, Leicester must rank as the most difficult, given Villa's perennial discomfort against a club they have failed to beat for more than a dozen years.

Alpay, though, was blissfully unaware of his team's recent nightmares at this particular venue and simply got on with the job which persuaded Gregory to prefer him to the unsettled but dependable Ugo Ehiogu.

As the Euro 2000 star later handed out jelly babies to a Turkish television crew, he reflected, in broken English, just how happy he was with his afternoon's work. His command of the language may be limited, but the manner in which he came through his first Premier League test suggested it had been child's play.

Quick and alert in the challenge, he oozed class on the ball and looked a bargain at pounds 5.6 million alongside some of today's inflated transfer valuations.

Collymore will certainly be happy at not having to face him again until the end of the year. Stan the Man packed more energy into an opening-minute burst - albeit with a woeful finish - than he did on his Villa debut in the corresponding match three years ago, but then drifted into anonymity as Alpay blotted him out of the game.

Leicester's main threat, in fact, came from former Wolverhampton Wanderers striker Ade Akinibiyi, whose suitability to top-flight football has been questioned in some quarters, but even he became increasingly ineffective as Villa's back three grew in stature.

It's just a pity that skipper Gareth Southgate is still keen to leave, because he, Alpay and teenager Gareth Barry look perfectly capable of maintaining the sound defensive base which has been Villa's strength over the past couple of seasons.

Although a high-profile match petered out to a tame goalless draw, Gregory could take plenty of encouragement from earning a point on a ground where Villa last won in the old Second Division 13 years ago before completing a double the following Spring. Not that he was totally happy.

'We should have won,' he said. 'We should have made more of our possession. We kept the ball well and I always felt we were in control. It's a couple of points dropped.'

In territorial terms, the manager had a valid argument, but while he was full of praise for his defence's high level of competence, a breakthrough looked equally unlikely at the other end.

With Ginola operating in a deep role and marked by two, sometimes three opponents, Dion Dublin was isolated as a lone striker for two-thirds of the match. It was only after youngster Darius Vassell had replaced the Frenchman and taken up an advanced position that the visitors really threatened.

Ginola had tested Tim Flowers with a 30-yard drive which the goalkeeper fumbled before gathering at the second attempt, but the best two chances fell to Dublin in the closing stages.

A 79th-minute build-up featuring Lee Hendrie's excellent pass and Alan Wright's superb cross was undoubtedly Villa's best moment of the game, even if it ended with Dublin driving over from a good position, while the striker might also have done better with a last-minute header from Vassell's cross.

If those were almost match-winning moments, however, they were balanced by some fine David James saves, most notably from Akinbiyi and Muzzy Izzet, whose smart 72nd-minute turn provided Alpay's only embarrassment.

A draw was ultimately a fair outcome to a tight contest and while the scoreline emphasised Villa's need for more potency up front, they unquestionably have an abundance of riches in midfield.

Gregory was even able to enjoy the luxury of having Ian Taylor on the bench as George Boateng proved an effective anchor man, Paul Merson displayed some delightful touches and Hendrie's confidence expanded as the match progressed.

With Steve Stone beavering away at right wing-back, Villa were an effective unit right across the middle. On Saturday's showing, at least, all they require now is that one vital ingredient. Easier said than done, of course.

LEICESTER CITY (3-5-2): Flowers; Rowett (Walsh, 85), Elliott, Taggart; Impey, Savage, Lennon, Izzet, Davidson (Eadie, 62); Akinbiyi, Collymore. Subs: Gilchrist, Royce (gk).

ASTON VILLA (3-5-1-1, THEN 3-5-2): James; Alpay, Southgate, Barry; Stone, Merson, Boateng, Hendrie, Wright; Ginola (Vassell, 62); Dublin. Subs: Ehiogu, Taylor, Samuel, Enckelman (gk)

Referee: M Riley (Leeds)

Bookings: Leicester - Lennon, Savage (fouls); Villa - Merson (foul), Ginola (diving)

Attendance: 21,455

Villa Man of the Match: Alpay - a debut of distinction
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Title Annotation:Football
Author:Bishop, Rob
Publication:The Birmingham Post (England)
Date:Aug 21, 2000
Words:875
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