And so, after 9 conceded goals in just 2 games, after European elimination, after failing to fill 8063 (almost 19%) seats, and lets be honest, after some dreadful, dreadful football, Aston Villa overturned their first big challenge of the season to climb proudly into the last remaining Champions League spot.
Football’s a funny old thing isn’t it?
Because as surely as this high will soon be quashed by a poor result elsewhere in the season, I’m going to once again allow myself to be blinded by the optimism and take a look at how positive things can sometimes be for an Aston Villa fan.
Yes, we are only 3 games into the season, but we are hanging onto the coattails of the Big Three better than anyone else in the league, and last year’s fourth place residents have already proven that they will be unable to cope with both the physical and mental demands of a midweek European match (even at such a premature stage). Tottenham have a good squad full of depth and talent – but the requirement of Champions League teams to peak twice in the one week, and not prioritise competitions, is a whole new experience for Spurs and their potential six more hangovers could prove detrimental in their domestic campaign.
Man City have a better squad full of deeper talent, but are fortunately blessed with an incompetent Premier League manager. After completely outplaying Liverpool, I rated the Sky Blues as a shoe-in for a Top 4 place – only for their overpaid personnel to demonstrate how they are suspect to neglect “lesser” league opponents this year off the back of more glamorous fixtures. And as long as Mancini concerns himself with not losing (rather than trying to win), the players at his disposal will remain restricted and limited and open to defeats by unexpected midtable challengers.
Liverpool are unconvincing as ever. Unlucky to be suffering the frustrations of a transition period, Hodgson could take time to gather momentum for the wounded Reds. But still blessed with Gerrard and Torres, Villa should hope that this progress takes longer than it should.
Obviously it is a massive ask to expect the mess that is Aston Villa to secure a Top 4 spot (particularly this season), but it is extremely heartening to realise that maybe the grass isn’t much greener on the other side after all.
Okay, we were abysmal at times today. The first half was largely pathetic and the exciting dominance we enjoyed against The Hammers just two weeks ago never seemed so far away. It was like MacDonald was reverting back to the conservative style of Martin O’Neill – except under this manager, we were unable to carve any chances unlike the MON days. We got men behind the ball, sure, and we limited the opposition effectively, but on the ball, the Villains were clueless. Indeed, but for a poor and completely unsuccessful Fellaini clearance, I might not ever have written this piece (The O’Neill team were always outplayed, but never lacked direction or danger). The final 20 minutes of the game: I’d rather not discuss. I never thought it was possible to become short of breath by sitting down – but boy, that was a stressful time.
However, I’ve said it before and I am delighted to say it again: In sport, you don’t get what you deserve, you get what you take.
Besides, whatever the caretaker boss said at half time had a temporary effect on the team who were finally standing toe-to-toe with Everton and should have even put them away within that half hour spell. Ashley Young and John Carew had Distin on toast, and when we began to take them on, the Blue backline were struggling to find answers. Phil Jagielka produced a first class, last ditch block from Ashley Young’s rebound after big, bad John’s parried shot meant Tim Howard could only look on in hope. Similarly, Marc Albrighton showed his inexperience by rushing a rebounded shot from the opposite side when he could have firstly taken a touch. Everton never came as close as we did – and after refusing to give in to the pressure, we got out of there alive.
Yes, yes, yes. A quality goalkeeper is probably the most underrated, and conversely one of the most important, items within a football team. Producing a terrific reflex save from a Seamus Coleman flick, the American prevented certain heartbreak in the 94th minute to get a single fingertip to a Louis Saha shot which, at first glance, didn’t look threatening – thankfully Brad wasn’t as lax as I and went down, outstretched, to construct the game’s best save. A real relieving influence for a pressurized defence, Friedel’s impact in these 3 points should not be downplayed.
A case of humble pie for yours truly. Criticized on this very blog after his escapades in Newcastle, the number 2 produced his best performance in a long time to remind me why I had called for his selection on a number of occasions last year. Marauding into the penalty area, Young latched onto an inch perfect through ball from his namesake and effortlessly bent the ball into the top corner with his left foot – before completing the rest of the game in a sound manner and confidently making himself available as an attacking option time and time again. Apologies, Luke.
Man of the Match contender. The Welsh man lived up to every inch of his beast-like stereotype with a ruthless performance at the heart of our defence in a game where anything less would have been catastrophic. Standing tall and putting league-bully Marouane Fellaini in his place with a commanding role, this match was made for James Collins.
I was a bit critical of ‘Dickey’ in the early stages of the game – accusing him of dwelling in possession and being clumsy in the tackle. But in hindsight, our number 5 was simply tactically cynical and tried to help out the midfield with a bit of ball retention in a no-nonsense display which swept the lethargy of St James’ Park under the carpet.
I don’t know a lot, but I know that Stephen Warnock is a much more useful left back than Kieran Gibbs is. Another comforting solid match for the former Liverpool man, Everton’s right side was completely inept until the late introduction of Coleman, and like Luke, Warnock proved an attacking asset at least within our 30 minute spell. The entire defence should be credited with this victory after securing another clean sheet – defying the laws of averages (if you throw enough mud at the wall, some of it will stick – Everton threw an abundance of mud at the wall today, and none of it stuck).
Another tough game to get through for Marc, I think he just about tipped the scales and won me over throughout the 90 minutes. Early signs of naivety were apparent as Leighton Baines pushed forward, but the 20 year old got to grips and ended up recreating a number of thankful defensive clearances. He had a real bite going into the tackle as well which eliminated my early fears that he wasn’t physically ready just yet. At times, he ran out of steam and got overexcited when he could have held the ball up, but he was certainly our biggest threat from a wide area on Sunday.
Nigel Reo Coker
Take a bow, Nigel. An injury to Stephen Ireland in the warm up meant that a substitute was required, and in our hour of need, Reo Coker stepped up. Going through his usual shift of hard work and commitment, the number 20 was much better suited to this game than our new signing would have been – and I can’t recall one single instance where the lad lost possession. Even pulling the team out of the trenches with a few lung bursting, both solo and supportive, runs, the Londoner is, in my opinion, the unsung hero and another shout for MOTM – and could probably feel hard done by should he lose his place after this performance.
Much too quiet today. The skipper failed to ever really impose himself on the game and produce any kind of magic you would hope from your creative centre midfielder. Of course, still worked hard and was maybe a victim of the referee’s harsh away bias, but we needed more from Stan today and we didn’t get it – and had to ride our luck as a result.
Probably the weakest of the team today, Stewart hit a couple of notable misplaced passes and didn’t seem too interested in affecting change in the match either defensively or offensively (excuse the Bob Bradley twang). I was angered to see that Agbonlahor was not replacing the left winger. I would have moved Ashley out and played two up top because Downing simply was not on-song today.
Boy, is he thriving off playing behind the striker. Tireless off-the-ball work, combined with our best avenue of keeping possession, Young added to his delicious assist with 94 minutes of direction for a struggling outfit. If only we could have used his unflappably constant threat more.
The big man came through for us today. Again, wasn’t really given a chance with desperate balls being hoofed forward to his isolated positions, but the Norwegian still managed to play a key role in the goal with a nod down for Ashley, and he led the line well enough in difficult conditions. Maybe taken off too early just when he had the clear beating of Distin, Carew was a perfect example of a “good” individual performance in a poor team display, lacking a little direction.
Good to see him back. He showed glimpses of his use by holding up the ball and running into channels away from defenders. He was used as a bit of relief at times, but in truth, he was involved at a time where the game was being played in our box.
Although the team performance clearly wasn’t up to scratch, a number of individuals still demonstrated their value and showed that we are still a force if they can be moulded together (there was NO cohesion today and we still came away with the points).
Another clean sheet at Villa Park was the key to our 100% league record at home – a place where we failed to win 8 (42%) games last year.
Things were bleak just yesterday, and even throughout the game, alarm bells are clearly ringing. But just one glance at the Premier League table would suggest that we’re reaching any targets we are audacious enough to set in today’s environment, and it would confirm that once again, Aston Villa is overperforming.