Fulham (0) vs Aston Villa (3) – Two in a row

While Aston Villa arrived in London with some confidence about facing Fulham with one win in the bag, their opponents must have already been feeling the weight of expected doom. This was their second promotion to the Premier League in three years and that previous stay had been as short as possible. In fact, the team they had defeated at Wembley to get there in 2018 (the Villans) passed them in the revolving door (Villa were promoted in September of 2019) while the Cottagers went back to the Championship. Worse still, the pundits were universal in picking Fulham to repeat this sad fate. Two games and zero points to show for it, and a big signing to shore up their defense put on hold due to a pandemic-required quarantine, did little to inspire confidence. In comparison, Villa’s mood was almost cocky.

It certainly became that way when, at the 4-minute mark, a high press by Matty Cash yielded possession for John McGinn who eyed his captain, Jack Grealish, sidling over to the center of the field. Whether chemistry, telepathy or training, a perfect pass was dispatched as Jack broke between two defenders. The goalie came out to cut off the angle and sliding but could not prevent the shot going under his body. One touch, one goal for Jack and 1-0 for the Villans!

Fulham responded brightly as you would expect from a Scott Parker managed team, but the lack of defensive cohesion became very apparent again in the 15th minute. A crisp move between Grealish and Ollie Watkins consisting of a throw-in by Jack and a give-and-go with his striker allowed Jack to pick out McGinn in the box. Hourihane, who anticipated the play, was already on the way to the penalty area for the lay-off from the Scot and effortlessly swept the ball into right corner of the net. 2-0 to Villa and cruising. Fulham’s defenders stared at each other in consternation.

Again, Fulham responded smartly but the Villa defense was well-organized and never looked threatened. Indeed, whenever Grealish had the ball there was danger in the air. In the 34th minute, the skipper picked up an errant Fulham pass just outside his own penalty area and immediately looked for Watkins who was heading towards an open area on the left wing. The pass was instantly on its way and ready for the young striker to run onto. He angled inside, forcing Hector to back up into his area.

As he reached the point where he had a good look at goal and defenders struggling to get in position, Watkins struck what should have been a curler into the top right-hand corner, only it did not curl. Twelve minutes later, another excellent opportunity was squandered. A give-and-go corner with Grealish allowed Hourihane to lace a nasty cross for Watkins to glance into the net at the near post, only for young Ollie to totally misjudge the ball’s flight and head well wide. His despondency was evident. Two great chances to get off the mark in the Premier League with nothing to show for it, and halftime looming.

Starting off the second half, there was the sense that the next goal would be pivotal. The Villa should have put the game away before the break and Fulham had showed they were lively enough to pull one or two back. A minute into the second half the Claret and Blues’ worries were over.

A change of pace by Grealish, as he rounded Odoi on the left wing, saw the defender needing to grab Jack’s shirt before he went any further. This might be Hourihane’s favorite spot for freekicks as, true to form, the man from Cork placed a perfect cross for Tyrone Mings to meet as he broke through the defensive line. The goalie was caught trying to get to the ball and totally handcuffed by Mings’ slide and redirection. A delay for a VAR offside check that was short and positive, and the Villans could breathe easily leading 3-0 and able to play out the game.

That narrative was almost ruined by a worrisome incident in the 56th minute. Fulham fashioned a speculative shot from well out by substitute Kamara. Inexplicably, Martinez let the ball hit him in the chest and saw it spill in front of him for Reid to tap into the net. As the forward grabbed the ball to expedite a restart, the referee indicated he had something different on his mind. A check with the VAR official confirmed that, just prior to the shot, Mitrović had thrown Konsa to the ground. The goal was disallowed. Meanwhile, the delay and video replays served to suggest the probable cause of the goalie’s fumble. Mings had attempted to get his head on the shot but missed it, thus distracting Martinez. Fans could remember similar events from the past season where Mings had attempted to block shots with similar results.

Thanks to the infraction, Martinez and Mings could both breathe a sigh of relief and the goalie could later redeem himself with a spectacular save of an attempt by Bryan, pushing the goal-bound bullet shot onto the crossbar and back into play in the 90th minute. The Villans were left with only fond memories of the game, a somewhat frustrated striker, another three points, and another clean sheet.

With Liverpool visiting Villa Park next, the team would not want anything less!

FULHAM (3-4-2-1): A. Areola; D. Odoi; M. Hector; T. Ream; K. Tete; A. Anguissa; T. Cairney; J. Bryan; B. Reid; A. Mitrović; I. Cavaleiro

SUBS: Neeskens Kebano, Anthony Knockaert, Marek Rodák, Maxime Le Marchand, Josh Onoma, Antonee Robinson, Aboubakar Kamara

ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Conor Hourihane, Douglas Luiz, John McGinn; Trezeguet, Ollie Watkins, Jack Grealish (captain).

SUBS: Jed Steer, Bertrand Traoré, Kortney Hause, Ahmed Elmohamady, Marvelous Nakamba, Anwar El Ghazi, Keinan Davis

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