When it comes to this part of the season, I guess when your team plays well for a solid chunk of the match and gets an away win, you just have to take the positives and say ‘that’ll do’. So in short: as far as first legs, go, this will do:
I broke rule number one of living in Dublin for this particular game: thou shalt not go out in Temple Bar. With yours truly and my amazingly well-behaved four-year-old in tow, the Aston Villa Irish Supporters Club hit up Buskers On The Ball, a place they had managed to convince to show a playoff first leg on a large number of their screens, despite it clashing with Leinster’s European Cup Final rugby exploits. There must have been 30-40 Villa fans there, which makes the games more fun to watch, but doesn’t compare to when the club was based up on O’Connell Street, and at times drew in hundreds. That’s second-tier football, I guess.
I rarely know as much about what’s going on with a game before it kicks off as I did with one. As you might have gathered from my first playoff diary, I was pretty keen on working out what to expect from this (I said low scoring and scrappy, so I guess I didn’t do too badly). I learnt that Middlesborough are pretty much what you’d expect from a Tony Pulis team, and that much of their threat comes from corners, or from the flair of Adama Traore.
As you might know, Adama is a former Villa player, one we somehow poached from Barcelona as a youth player towards the end of the Premier League era. On his day, he’s exceptional, but he’s spectacularly inconsistent. Villa all but marked him out of the game, and I suspect it’s something we’ll have to do again second time around.
First half, it was slow and steady but very much Villa in control. Despite conceding a load of those corners (most of which Johnstone dealt with competently), Grealish, Adomah and Snodgrass were by far the better midfield. It was that other lad, the big Aussie Jedinak (who, I’ll admit, I’m not totally sure I’d have had on the pitch) who actually did the damage, nodding in from a corner by Grealish. He was given plenty of space, but what an untouchably good header, in off the base of the post.
Middlesborough created a bit, but nothing all that convincing (Assombalonga had a particularly poor game, though he was quite isolated). Snodgrass saw a curler tipped onto the post by Randolph; a brilliant stop, I’m still not quite sure how he got to it. Johnstone made a cracking save from Bamford at close range, the kind of range at which his only option really was to hope it came within arm’s length and react quickly. Bamford, frankly, should have scored. The second half was almost unwatchably dour, which suits in a way, even if it is essentially the build up to ‘halftime’ in the context of the semifinal. Overall, it was a tense, uninspired game of few chances. But Villa won, and over this game, and the next couple, that really is all that matters, nobody will care if it’s a sneaky 1-0 or a thrashing.
On a side note, I’m not in the habit of poking fun at the opposition (at least not in writing), but I was really surprised to see quite a chunk of empty seats at the Riverside down by the corner flags. Bizarre, for such a big game, that they can’t sell out. Based on nothing other than a wild guess, I suspect they’ve seen how Pulis’ side plays enough to not particularly enjoy it.
Get that sound turned right 🆙 for this…
— Aston Villa FC (@AVFCOfficial) May 12, 2018
On paper, you get a team back home with an advantage in a two-leg cup tie (which is essentially what this is, let’s be honest), and you should be going through. I’m well aware football doesn’t always work at even close to what’s expected, though. If you want to add to the nervous tension (and I don’t, but I can’t help it), you can throw in one particular stat: in four games between Villa and Middlesborough now this season, the home team has never won (and Middlesbrough did win 2-0 at Villa Park in the League Cup – that result would see them through. The league game at Villa Park was 0-0).
I’m expecting another tense game, and I think it’s critical Adama gets marked out of the game in the same way, as he really is a potential match winner (he’s also, potentially, a liability). It will help if Assombalonga has another poor game, too. On the Villa end, I don’t think they’ll be many changes. Grabban was unconvincing up front, but so was Kodjia when he came on, and Hogan doesn’t seem to inspire Bruce, or anyone else, so I suspect Grabban will go again. We could do without Whelan making an appearance, which more than likely means sticking with Jedinak. The goalkeeper, defence and the other three midfielders pick themselves.
Fingers crossed we have enough to push through. I’ll be more than happy to have the stress of trying to wrangle my way to Wembley for a second time in two weeks (I’m going to the England v Nigeria friendly in early June – I happened to be in London, for reasons that will become clear shortly if you regularly hang around on this site – I’m led to believe there are one or two of you!).
I’ll come back and write one more entry on this if we go out, you know, for completeness sake.
On a side note, there are no away goals in the playoffs. I’m happy about this (I always had a problem with away goals after extra time in particular – I accept the counter argument is ‘but the other team are at home, but in my eyes, there’s no way away goals should ever count double after extra time. That’s an argument for another day, anyway). Obviously, Middlesborough need to score to get through one way or the other, so the away goals rule couldn’t work in Villa’s favour in this scenario. I hope that’s not important and it’s straight through to Wembley after 90 minutes, but it’s the playoffs, and I’m not expecting smooth sailing.
So, in the unfortunately highly memorable words of Jon Bon Jovi, because fuck it, it seems appropriate and I’m feeling cheesy after Eurovision… woah, we’re halfway there… Or a third of the way. That depends, I guess.
Fulham: A quick edit to add that Fulham won last night, which I was really hoping wouldn’t happen, because they are quite comfortably the form team in the Championship, and definite favourites should Villa get through. Obviously there’s a certain inherent justice to the team in third going through (overall, as well as to the final), but from a Villa perspective, it’s not good, Derby would have been an easier game. In a one off game, though, who knows.