On a weekend where football went into a social media blackout, and protests continued in Manchester following Super League tensions, Aston Villa went back to basics with 90 minutes of entertaining football.
In the 205th meeting between these two sides, the most played fixture in league history, Villa were determined to make amends following several months of poor quality and disappointing results. Having taken four points off the Toffees last season, Smith and his men were undoubtedly licking their lips at the proposition of playing an Everton side that has been struggling for home performances in the 20/21 campaign.
Matty Cash returned from suspension following his second red card of the season against Manchester City. Jack Grealish was still absent, though a promising scan in the week has left Smith cautiously optimistic for a captain’s return very soon. Ross Barkley was again in the starting lineup against his old and local club. With Europe seemingly out of reach, but relegation impossible, Villa had less to play for on paper against Europe-chasing Everton. However, a refreshingly positive and attacking performance from the away side proved that all points remain up for grabs in the final stretch of the season.
Villa started with a spring in their step. Whatever was said or done in training during the week seemed to have had a major impact on the team, who looked the most invigorated they had been since the end of 2020. Attacks were plentiful at both ends from the outset with end-to-end play and high tempo passing. All of the attacking forwards and midfielders were trying to get involved, and initial Villa dominance was rewarded with an early 13th-minute goal by Watkins. Holgate was truly bullied by Villa’s number 11, twice having the ball stolen off him in the lead up to the goal.
Watkins continued with his willing runs and almost capitalised again on Everton’s defensive blunders. With the game playing out incredibly openly, Everton soon gained back an advantage following a corner from which aerial expert Dominic Calvert-Lewin headed home from close range. Reassuringly, this goal did not seem to sting Villa too much and they soon got back on the attack through Bertrand Traorè and Watkins. The curse of the woodwork did indeed strike again, with Cash’s delicious cross landing at the feet of Watkins, and the rebound from El Ghazi smashing the crossbar. Barkley got a taste too with a low strike bouncing off the outside of the post.
A level scoreline at half-time was somewhat reflective of the end-to-end nature of the game, but Villa were dominating in terms of the quality of movement and possession. With recent results and performances looming in the back of fans’ minds, the second-half was even more important for Villa to prove that they could play well and get good results like those of the first four months of the season.
Unfortunately, there was less excitement and action in the second 45, but Smith’s men did still maintain a decent level of performance. The defence was incredibly solid and was able to absorb periods of pressure from Everton’s high press. A few decent chances started appearing in the latter part of the half, but the game-changing moment came from the one and only Anwar El Ghazi with his beauty of a right foot.
A lovely strike once again from the Dutchman, who has now reached eight goals for the season. A great build-up included a good run from Traorè, who arguably had his best game in a long time. The faces of all those in claret and blue proved how much it meant to them to come back in this game. Recent form has unfortunately disrupted Villa’s clean sheet record and ability to hold on to leads, so this redemption seemed to be a long time coming.
The remaining ten minutes were essentially just about staying tight at the back and not sacrificing a great performance. Late goals against Newcastle and Liverpool were recent reminders of what can go wrong in the dying moments of football games. The final whistle triggered a sigh of relief and a feeling of satisfaction that most Villa fans will not have experienced in a long time. Villa were energetic, good in possession and passing was almost back at its best. It is performances like these that are reminiscent of earlier in the season, and the win gives hope for further successes before the end of the season.
If Smith and the Villa team can recreate performances like this one against the likes of Man Utd, Palace and Chelsea in the coming weeks, then there is no reason that they cannot solidify that top-half spot. Hopefully, we will also see the return of Jack Grealish to add some fuel to the fire. For now, let’s savour another great occasion against Everton.
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