Well, that was far from a classic. Tinged with the added emotion of Jlloyd Samual’s death in a car crash a few hours before kick off, Villa’s second leg against Middlesborough was one of the tensest and most uninspiring games of football I’ve ever seen as an Aston Villa fan. All’s well that ends well…
An oddly flat but intense game.
In my experience, Villa have always known how to test your nerves. You’d have to say, trying to look at things from a Middlesborough point of view, on balance they were really poor over the two legs. Without wanting to downplay the occasion, which makes things very different to a normal game, you could almost say Villa won by default. I’m reliably informed they had one shot on target over 180 minutes, none in this second game, which they needed to win, but seemed to forget that until the latter stages. They created incredibly little.
Nevertheless, Villa contrived to make things difficult for ourselves. The first half saw the home side sit back from about 15 minutes on, after a strong start, struggling to hold the ball outside of our own half, and sitting horrendously deep as Middlesborough seemed to keep a lot of the ball. Inability to clear our lines or hold onto the ball in an in any way attacking position is offset, I guess, by the fact that Adama Traore was once again largely shut down. The best Boro really created in the first half was a number of potentially dangerous crosses, which the superb Alan Hutton largely opted to let just fly over his head at the back post. It said more about Middlesborough’s lack of quality, though, than anything Villa were doing.
Things did get better in the second half. With the intensity ramped up, that Adomah/ Grealish partnership came into play, and looked really threatening at times. We seemed to figure out that the best way to defend was to try and get the ball in the other half and hold it, and Grealish and Grabban both had decent efforts on goal. I’m a little unsold on Grabban still: he had very little impact on the game (though you could certainly blame the service), and looked clunky at times. James Bree is also an obvious weakness: he struggled at right back in place of Elmohamady, and I’d be more than a little worried about him coming up against someone better on that wing when Wembley arrives.
The drama came at the end, of course. Downing smashed the crossbar – heart in mouth. Johnstone made a very rare error, in saving a shot by handling outside the area, a move he arguably should have been sent off for, depending on your definition of a clear goalscoring opportunity. I suspect we would have gone through anyway, given how late in the game the incident was, but the leniency will serve us well in the final: Johnstone is essential to this Villa team, and I suspect he’ll have work to do at Wembley.
Here’s my good friend Stephen’s take on watching me watch the game. I suspect my nerves were more entertaining than what was on screen…
I thought an ambulance was in the offing at one stage
— Stephen Byrne (@altirishmusic) May 15, 2018
It’s hard to say anything all that positive, apart from that we did enough, and it really is all that matter at this stage. This was emphatically not a classic, though I do think the better team won.
All of which means it’s a one-off game against Fulham that determines whether Villa go back to the Premier League; a game played on the same day as the Champions League Final, and allegedly substantially more valuable. As I said in my previous blog on this, Fulham are the team it would have been better to avoid. They’re all but unbeaten since New Year, they have Mitrovic and Sessegnon, both of whom are undeniably Premier League class, and they will certainly go in as favourites.
That said, I think this Villa side have plenty to feel good about. Grealish looks really strong, and is arguably not that far away from the England squad that Southgate just announced this week (especially considering who did make the cut). I’m not one of those fans who’s willing to forget everything about John Terry’s past as soon as he pulls on the right colours, but his experience is quite definitely helpful. Steve Bruce, at the time of writing, has the single best winning record of any Aston Villa manager since the 1930s, at slightly over 47% (he now faces the odd circumstance of that record almost certainly being more likely to stand up to another few months of competition if he loses the next game, not wins it, but obviously we all know which is the better result).
There’s a natural fear that a loss would mean some serious destruction to this squad. It is still borderline Premier League quality. Grealish, Terry, Johnstone , Grabban and Snodgrass have to be at very real risk of leaving, and that’s a very good chunk of the best things about the current side. Equally, half of that lot could say, but it’s hard to imagine starting another season in the Championship with a side as strong as the current one. That’s what makes these games so intense, I guess.
It’s ten days to wait, which seems a whole lot too long. I probably won’t be able to get a ticket, as I don’t have the booking record this year to do anything other than cross my fingers and wait for the general sale, which – even if it is an option – leaves only four days to sort flights.
I’m a natural pessimist when it comes to Villa. It’s hard not to be, when it feels like for your entire adult life you’ve mostly been watching a string of ‘almosts’ and then a slide from the top table. If I was a betting man – and I’m not, but nor could I be against my own side – I’d be going for Fulham. Put it this way, I didn’t think full time on Tuesday was the right time for a pitch invasion. I do think this side have something about them, though, and I wouldn’t put our chances too far below the 50% mark. Over 90 minutes, and with most of the big game experience on our side, anything could happen. Bring on May 26…