Last night’s late drama saw VAR overshadow all post-match discussion, once again. This time, Villa fell victim to a three-minute-long decision that eventually called Ollie Watkins offside for his injury-time equaliser. Heartbreak.
This is not to say that there were no other worthwhile talking points within the game; Villa will surely take some positives, as well as some significant lessons learnt from the battle against West Ham.
The game opened with the Hammers kicking off, immediately looking a threat and winning a corner from a Matt Targett deflection. That was perhaps Villa’s only touch before the ball found its way into the back of the net from said corner, Ogbanna’s header putting us on the back foot from the second minute. Frustrating viewing for Villa fans, watching a repeat of previous goals conceded from corners, in which players appear to be marking zonally rather than man to man. It might be more logical for one of our taller players to be positioned at the back post, instead of leaving Targett and McGinn to attempt crucial aerial duels.
Our response to the early setback was encouraging, as Villa pushed to create chances. One of our best opportunities came from a free-kick, won by Trezeguet very close to the edge of the box. Barkley’s injury meant that Hourihane was reintroduced to the starting XI for the first time since our victory against Fulham, and his ability over dead balls had him on free-kick and corner duty all evening. He struck well but was denied by West Ham goalkeeper Fabianski.
Not long after this, Jack Grealish provided the lifeline we were all desperately waiting for. Villa’s hero dribbled the ball swiftly through the opposition’s midfield and fired a long-range equaliser. Aided by a slight deflection, Grealish put Villa back in the game and injected a boost of confidence into the team.
The remainder of the first half saw Villa working hard to obtain a lead, but West Ham had predictably prioritised Grealish as the most likely danger and defended wide to cover him. Despite controlling the majority of the first half, chances for Trezeguet and Hourihane are unfortunately not finished, so we entered half time on equal levels.
Frustratingly, the opening moments of the game repeated themselves in the second half. Villa found themselves trailing once more, after a mere 36 seconds this time. To add insult to injury, it was Said Benrhama’s assist that reinstated West Ham’s lead – a rumoured transfer target for Aston Villa in the most recent window. His impact was immediate, having only been brought on at halftime, perfectly setting up Bowen’s header.
With West Ham’s recent good form and Villa’s discouraging history with conceding first, it was clear we would have to dig deep to salvage something from this game. The perfect opportunity came from a Villa counter-attack, giving Trezeguet the chance to slot one past the West Ham keeper, instead firing a shot directly at him. The reaction of fans at home was mirrored in that of Trezeguet, who clearly understood the weight of his miss and couldn’t seem to believe it.
We continued to fight and soon won a late penalty after Trezeuget was fouled by Declan Rice. Sadly, the penalty epitomised Villa’s night – almost brilliant, but powerfully rocketed at the crossbar, that momentary hope dashed and play resumed.
Smith made two changes immediately following the miss, swapping Hourihane and a very bloody Trezeguet for Traore and El Ghazi.
The shots continued with zero reward, until the final minutes of the game. Targett’s cross landed for Watkins, who slotted it away with moments to spare. Following an agonizing 3 minute VAR review, Villa’s beautiful equaliser and salvaged point was cruelly retracted. Much debate ensued as a result of the controversy, with players, fans, and pundits all voicing their anger. The main issues raised were the point at which the offside line was drawn – Watkins’ elbow, that could not be used to score; the length of time in which the decision was made, so long that it could not be considered ‘clear and obvious’; and the blatant foul against Watkins that caused his position in the first place. Footage of Obganna practically strangling Watkins in an attempt to keep him back from goal is circulating the internet, a moment overlooked by officials in favour of drawing debatable offside lines.
Of course, there is much to dwell on besides the VAR decision, but once again Aston Villa feel rightfully robbed of an opportunity to equalise merely a week after the last injustice.
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