Wolves (0) vs Aston Villa (1) – Villa win the West Midlands Derby Game

When Villa lost at home to Wolves last June 27 and, in doing so, handed their local rivals the double, it appeared all but certain that this was sealing their own departure from the Premier League. Villa fans still wonder how they escaped that precipice.

Less than six months later, and after an infusion of top-class talent into the squad, the Villans found themselves, on Saturday, at another inflection point. The giddy beginning of the season, four consecutive wins including the demolition of Liverpool, 7-2, was beginning to look like a flash in the pan. Emi Martinez had gone from hero to oh so human, and games that they dominated were allowed to slip from their grasp.

So, how would this season’s Villa squad respond to the major challenge of holding back a dangerous, yet anxious, Wolves team, albeit without the exquisite Raul Jimenez? We knew not to expect Villa’s flowing play that tore Arsenal and the Reds apart. This game was too important to be pretty. Still, the Claret and Blue showed their Achilles heel early, but we’ll get to that.

Before the teams stepped on the field, there were a couple of surprises, both youth oriented. The managers, independently, chose potential over experience. It was more a case of facing reality than gambling, coming on the backs of disappointing previous performances. Wolves had been totally dominated by Liverpool who prevailed 4-0, while Villa failed to convert their territorial advantage and opportunities galore into a win as they fell 2-1 to West Ham. Dean Smith brought in academy-graduate Jacob Ramsey while Wolves’ manager, Nuno Herlander Simões Espírito Santo, gave yet another Portuguese acquisition (Fabio Silva for a tidy $27.5 million), a start. Both were thrust into service earlier than might have been expected (Ramsey is 19, while Silva is 18) if not for team stars sidelined with injuries (Barkley with a hamstring and the aforementioned Jimenez with concussion after being knocked sideways in a head clash with Arsenal’s David Luiz).

Smith also gave their Traore (Bertrand) a start with Trezeguet still getting over a kick in the head. The Villa also changed their formation to 4-3-3, confirming their commitment to defense. What did not change was Villa’s captain and talisman, Jack Grealish’s demeanor, as he jogged onto the field sporting his cheeky and confident smile that reminds us all that it’s only a game and there’s always next week.

From the kick-off, Villa were determined to establish their intent, converging on a loose ball at the halfway line only to let Podence take off unimpeded down the right wing. The lively forward put over a dangerous cross that, but for a fine defensive header by Cash, would have created a golden opportunity for Fabio Silva with Mings and Konsa somewhat stranded.

Dean Smith took a deep breath as did all Villa fans around the world. The two-minute mark had not been reached and it was a few more minutes before they settled down. It was the grit of Douglas Luiz and John McGinn that made the difference, making inroads into the Wolves’ half, they earned a corner. The team continued to press, the play settled into a pattern and blood pressures eased.

The pattern was for the two teams to alternately dominate the play, create half chances that defenses (certainly Wolves’) and goalies (certainly Martinez) met with, respectively, fine blocks and top class saves. At the 12th minute, Mings reminded Villa fans of his recent challenges, losing the ball at the halfway line and allowing Neto to run clear then pull the ball back for young Silva with only Martinez to beat. Fortunately, the keeper had been alert and was able to dive onto the pass just before the striker’s boot. It probably irked the Argentinian to find that the blow to the back of his head was unnecessary suffering given the delayed offside call!

It was no coincidence that just two minutes later, Luiz “professionally” tripped Silva before he could cause more damage, starting a long list of yellows and more. Another sign of more focus on defense was that none of the freekicks were in prime shooting range.

On the positive side, at 22 minutes McGinn was conspicuous again, neatly setting up Ramsey, open on the edge of the area. Despite an alert midfielder forcing him to rush his effort, young Jacob did manage to get his body lined up for a powerful shot, that he just failed to keep below the bar.

The yellow card that Mike Dean pulled at 29 minutes was the only one that caused discomfort to Villa fans as it was Matty Cash’s fifth, and he would miss Villa’s next fixture. The pre-season signing from Notts Forest has been outstanding at the right wing back position.

That thought was soon forgotten when Grealish cut inside the area and, getting a glimpse of goal, unleashed a powerful shot, only to see it blocked by Coady and ricocheting all the way off the field on the right. Ezri Konsa, up for a long throw by Cash, attempted a flick-on to the far post but miscued and the ball came very close to bouncing into the goal at the near post with Patricio stranded. Being beaten that way would have been mortifying for the keeper as, thanks to impressive Wolves defending, he had yet to face a shot.

That close-call at one end was quickly followed by an excellent save by Martinez from a low swerving strike by Podence, one that the Argentinian had to stretch to his fullest to push one-handed behind for a corner. Another shot by Podence was also comfortably handled before Wolves’ Traore picked out Dendoncker at the edge of the area. His snapshot was powerful enough but was obscured by Silva and Martinez failed to gather. The Belgian, ever alert, followed his shot to take advantage. Notably, both Konsa and Mings were there to help their goalie and clear the danger. As the clock ran down to halftime and the score still tied, all Villa fans had their hearts in their mouths as Silva just failed to get good contact on a well-placed free-kick and Martinez was able to watch his header bounce wide of the upright.

The break came and time to assess. Though Villa had most of the possession, it was Wolves who had been most dangerous and, excellent as Martinez had been, Wolves had failed to be clinical. They should have been in the lead. Villa fans, meanwhile, would undoubtedly have been comparing the two Traoré’s and, likely, concluding that Villa’s Bertrand reminded them of the Adama Traore who arrived on Villa’s doorstep back in 2015 as a callow 19-year-old. Like Bertrand, he was prone to a lack self-discipline and to take his defensive responsibilities lightly. What has happened in the intervening years, especially under Wolves’ boss, Espirito Santo, is that Adama has rounded out to be a major contributor at both ends of the field.

Though already 25 years of age, Bertrand has still untapped potential and Dean Smith appears determined to give him every opportunity. In his 70 minutes, truth be told, he was only noticeable for his failure to maintain possession against the midfield pressure tactics of Wolves that, on at least one occasion, almost led to a Wolves goal. In the second half, he barely saw the ball, and this will remain a concern for Smith.

Even without much assistance from their right-winger, the Villa started the second half livelier than Wolves. Grealish found McGinn racing open down the left wing and his attempt to get a cross into the box was rebuffed for a throw-in. Undeterred, McGinn tried again and this time it was perfectly directed towards Watkins’ noggin’. The young striker was ready and rose effortlessly with nothing between him and Patricio, when Saiss who, was stranded the wrong side of the play, applied just enough of a shove in the back. The ball sailed harmlessly over the visibly upset Villan who, for now, is not a complainer. That may have to change, as a penalty was the almost certain call.

Villa were playing with enough confidence that it appeared not to matter. Captain Grealish teased the Wolves’ backline carrying the ball around the outside of the box as he threatened to shoot then laid it off to Luiz, ready to do the honors. The Brazilian international got all of it and the ball was heading towards Patricio’s right post with him beaten, only to skim just wide.

Between these two forays Targett, who had an excellent defensive game, managed to block a Podence shot and have the rebound loop safely into the goalie’s hands. That was probably counted as a shot on goal, one that Martinez appreciated.

When Adama Traore took a speculative shot not long after, the lively Podence exhibited his obvious impatience. An hour had passed, and Wolves looked less likely to score as minutes ticked by. Then Neto cut in from the right wing and hit a dangerous looking shot, but it was from a long way out and wide of the post.

The Villans, on the other hand, were looking more dangerous. Watkins’ runs down the left, were forcing Coady to do a lot of chasing and the England national team center back had to resort to pulling back the #11 ahead of him. Then, finally, Luiz found the striker with a ball to his feet with just enough space in the penalty. Coady, of course, was there as was another yellow jersey, but a quick turn and Ollie had a sight of the near post. The ball was heading into that corner when Patricio moved extraordinarily quickly to get down and his right hand out to turn the shot around the upright. A touch off one Coady’s heel may have done enough to make it a little easier to reach. Still, an outstanding save for a goalie who had yet to be tested in 66 minutes.

Just as quickly, the pendulum swung the other way. Podence, yet again, found space on the right and zipped a pass across the face of the goal and into the path of Silva, slipping between Mings and Konsa. The ball was stuck past the desperate dive of Martinez but managed to hit the inside of the upright and carom behind the goalie back towards the speedy Silva, moving in that direction, only for Konsa to sniff out the danger and block a certain goal.

Within a minute, Wolves came close again. Mings got a touch on Neto’s cross, enough to make Konsa miss it and Saiss to mistime his header. Coming off his shoulder, the keeper dropped down and collected it comfortably.

That was followed by the play, and save, of the game. Neto was Grealish-like coming in from the left and, with defenders fixated on his shooting threat, Leander Dendoncker parked himself unmarked close to the penalty spot. The ball arrived with enough pace that all he had to do was help it on its way, volleying wide and high to Martinez’s left. As quick as the ball traveled, Emi’s strong hand was quicker, and the ball was parried away and out of danger. The Belgian midfielder, whose goal was the difference last June, looked stunned.

In the midst of this barrage, Villa made it downfield and came close to a golden opportunity themselves. Instead, they convinced Dean Smith to give up on his Traore, at least for this game. It started with Wolves clearing their lines and, momentarily, leaving three Villa forwards, caught in an offside position. Two immediately corrected their situation and were on their way back for an excellently weighted pass from Villa’s midfield. Marcal had a minor panic attack and brought down Traore, an obvious penalty, except this Traore had been lethargic and not got himself onside. The flag went up. During the next break, the Burkina Fasso international was pulled off and Anwar El Ghazi was on to replace him.

Dendoncker was also substituted (with Ruben Neves) and, with time running down, it appeared that both teams were ready to settle for a draw. That was until Douglas Luiz inexplicably decided that Podence deserved to get shoved out of play as they competed for a ball at the touchline. Using an elbow was not a good idea, especially when you are already carrying a yellow. Mike Dean added to his tally of flashing yellows and added a red. Luiz trudged off the field.

With five official minutes left, these was going to be tense for the boys in Claret and Blue. Sure enough, Wolves picked up the pace, but the Villa were ready to man their defenses. In the process, Grealish became the sixth Villa player to go in the book for scything down Podence down from behind. Perhaps he felt left out!

With the 90 minutes up, Wolves seemed to ease off the gas and that was all the invitation John McGinn needed. Grealish froze the Wolves defense long enough for the Scot to pop-up on the left wing, nutmegging Nelson Semedo on his way into the area. The Barcelona pick-up (for $40 million) clumsily tried to get to the ball from behind. For once, McGinn did not resist gravity and, when barged, went down. Penalty! It was so obvious that, thankfully, nobody requested a VAR review.

After the West Ham penalty fiasco, most Villa fans would have been simultaneously excited and anxious. Who takes the kick? After Watkins’ miss, Hourihane on the bench and Grealish’s inconsistency from the spot, there was no obvious candidate. In fact, there was. As the captain knew, the best penalty-kicker in the squad was on the field. El Ghazi makes a point of practicing penalty kicks a lot and he is very good and consistent. His demeanor said as much. Grealish gave the stocky Dutchman the assignment. Much to the relief of Villa supporters around the world, not only did he send Patricio the wrong way, the power and the location (just inside the post) made the shot unstoppable! Wolves 0-1 Aston Villa.

Still, there were a couple of minutes to play out the clock and the visitors had to keep their heads. When Ramsey gained possession outside his penalty area, one would have expected him to hoof the ball down the field for momentary safety. Of course, that would use up 20 seconds at the most. Instead, he coolly pulled the ball back and rounded the Wolves veteran, Joao Mourinho, who desperately swung out a leg and tripped the youngster. Another second yellow card, followed by a red and Mourinho was following Luiz into the tunnel.

This gave Dean Smith an opportunity to extend the delay by bringing in Nakamba for Ramsey (without COVID 19, the crowd would have roared their appreciation for an excellent debut game in the Premier League). Not to worry, when the final whistle came shortly after, the Villans came together in the middle of the pitch for an impromptu team scrum that spoke to the pride and satisfaction of a gritty hard won three points.

In a strange coincidence, this was part of an unlikely trio of Claret and Blue weekend away wins (between West Ham downing Leeds in Yorkshire, and Burnley upsetting Arsenal at the Emirates Stadium).

Now home to face one of the above. Burnley at Villa Park next Thursday.

Wolves (4-2-3-1): Rui Patricio; Nelson Semedo, Conor Coady, Romain Saiss, Fernando Marcal; Leander Dendoncker, Joao Moutinho; Adama Traore, Pedro Neto, Daniel Podence; Fabio Silva.

SUBS: Rayan Ait Nouri, Ruben Neves (80 mins., for Dendoncker), Willy Boly, Vitinha, John Ruddy, Maximilian Kilman, Owen Otasowie.

ASTON VILLA (4-3-3): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn; Jacob Ramsey, Ollie Watkins, Bertrand Traore, Jack Grealish (captain)

SUBS: Jed Steer, Conor Hourihane, Ahmed Elmohamady, Marvelous Nakamba (90+7 mins., for Ramsey, Anwar El Ghazi (75 mins., for Traore), Frederic Guilbert, Kourtney Hause.

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