On a sunny December lunchtime when Mike Dean got in the Christmas spirit, handing out cards to all, Aston Villa got a last gasp winner over their Midlands neighbours to make it four out of five away wins this season.
The gritty and hard-fought derby battle was fuelled by a questionable refereeing display, with 11 cards dished out within the 90 minutes, two of which being second yellows for Villa’s Douglas Luiz and Wolves’ Joao Moutinho. Mike Dean had an eager hand on his cards at all times, with much of the game being stop-start at the hand of petty fouls and cheap free kicks. Youngster Jacob Ramsey got his first ever Premier League start, making his way into the midfield in the absence of both Trezeguet and Ross Barkley to injury.
Both teams started off with spells of the ball, but very few chances were created. McGinn was initially seen pressing higher up the pitch on the left side, with Grealish drifting in and out, yet little came in the way of excitement. Wolves had a few quick counter attacks, but the defence remained resolute and kept the Wolves front two mostly quiet. A Villa set piece curled into the box early in the first half seemed to glance Saiss’ arm, yet VAR deemed it legal, raising even more questions over the limits of the handball rule.
Bertrand Traore made another start for Villa, but didn’t seem to settle in as smoothly as perhaps hoped. While Ramsey slid in relatively seamlessly to the starting 11, making few errors and chasing the game at all times, Traore seemed to struggle in possession as he misplaced passess. There is definitely a flair in the Burkina Faso international, but we are yet to see the more settled and consistent player that a lot of fans hoped for with the £17 million price tag. Trezeguet was a big miss on the wing with his pace, workrate, and link-up with Matty Cash being blatantly absent throughout the game. Once again, the lack of creativity in the midfield, that we would usually see through Barkley, meant that there were fewer options in attack, and long balls up to Grealish and Watkins were ineffective for most the game.
The first half ended with a decent spell from Villa, but the teams left the pitch at half time with a fair scoreline of 0-0. As the second half started, normal service resumed with foul after foul and nothing really to shout about. The lack of rhythm made for quite difficult viewing, though it wasn’t necessarily a poor quality performance from either side. A few Villa chances failed to register on target, while Wolves had some brighter spells, with crucial blocks from Tyrone Mings and his trusty partner Esri Konsa preventing any upset.
After a nervy hit of the post by Wolves, and a few solid saves by Martinez, Villa simply had to make a change to get some fresh legs on the pitch, as Wolves were increasingly getting in behind the Villa midfield – not to mention the loss of Luiz to a second yellow card. On comes El Ghazi, championship hero, to hopefully change the game. With possession evenly distributed and shots bouncing around at both ends, the game needed just one moment of inspiration to make the difference.
A typically eager John McGinn made the run, trying to slip a ball past Nelson Semedo, only to be tripped in the box by the Wolves right-back. Mike Dean decided he had been harsh enough of the Villans, so he chose to point to the spot. After one of the quickest VAR decisions we’ve seen, El Ghazi stepped up to the spot, ball in hand, with a possible three points at the tips of his toes. The Dutchman fired the ball to the bottom right corner, sending Patricio the other way towards a devastating 94th minute defeat. The Villa boys from Aston erupt into celebration, piling on the penalty-taker to welcome him back on to the scoresheet.
As a Villa fan, it’s hard to celebrate a win until the final whistle has blown. After a 95th minute red card for Moutinho and the 97th minute introduction of Marvellous Nakamba, the ref blew and solidified Villa’s place as the biggest club in the Midlands. Never in doubt, of course. A massive three points from a tough game reflects just how far the boys have come since last season, as they would likely have lost this game 12 months ago.
Emi Martinez had a blinder of a game, commanding the field with calm yet decisive leadership, and responsible and brave saves when necessary. He has to be man of the match, particularly after the simply brilliant save from Dendoncker’s strike. The clean sheet will mean more to him than any MOTM trophy, but he certainly deserves a large chunk of the praise.
We must also give credit to Matt Targett, who struggled against Wolves during both fixtures last season, but managed to keep up to Traore’s pace in this weekends fixture. Watkins held the ball up well, but struggled to do much in terms of creating clear cut chances. A lot of this is down to Wolves’ notorious defensive strength, with Grealish similarly struggling to make a definitive impact in and around the box. At points we could’ve done with our set piece specialist, Conor Hourihane, on the pitch, given the sheer amount of free kicks won throughout the game.
Cash’s fifth yellow card of the season means that he will now miss Thursday’s home game against Burnley, which is another blow to the lineup that has otherwise been very consistent until now. Luiz’s second yellow gives him a suspension, too. We could argue that, although Dougie’s second challenge was reckless knowing he was already on a booking, Dean Smith could have managed the game better by taking the Brazilian off earlier as a precautionary measure.
A resolute performance by Smith’s men puts Villa back in the top 10 of the league table, with two games in hand over most teams. The four away clean sheets and brilliant away form reflect a transformation that no fan could have expected on the first day of the season. A defensively determined, mentally strong performance is something to be proud of today, especially when plentiful bookings and injuries could have otherwise seriously hindered the team. Thursday’s game against Burnley and Sunday’s against the Baggies will have the players and fans licking their lips now, with the chance for nine points in ten days a truly exciting prospect.
Up The Villa!
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