Burnley (3) vs Aston Villa (2) – Villa Let a Win Slip Away

For neutral soccer fans, this was likely one of the most exciting performances of the season. End to end action, brilliant goalkeeping, changes of lead, excellent constructed and executed goals, and suspense from the get-go to the final whistle. For Burnley fans, coming on top of their twin wins at Anfield and in the FA Cup at Craven Cottage, they must have thought this come from behind win was a miracle in three parts. As for Villa fans, we were, to put it mildly, gutted. This season’s team did not lose when they scored first, held teams scoreless (9 times already) and were cruising along in total control at Turf Moor when the wheels fell off and nobody saw it coming.

So, what happened? To start with, the Villans had their strongest like-up with John McGinn back from suspension and all their first team players fully fit and COVID-free (post quarantine). True to form, there was an initial settling in period as they allowed McNeil to put over a decent cross from the left after Wood had muscled his way to set him up. Without Wood as a target, the cross was dealt with and Martinez gathered and cleared.

Within a minute Grealish had executed a sleek give and go and got to the goal line on the left for a pull back with Traore in the crease and Watkins and Barkley hovering with intent. Tarkowski sniffed the danger and slid over to block the cross out for a corner.

From the corner, Konsa rose unmarked on the six-yard line, in the middle of the goal, and headed over, then put his head in his hands knowing he missed a sitter with only 2 minutes on the clock. It appeared Mings had jumped in front of him and missed the ball and caused a distraction. Mings’ inability to score from Villa corners is one part of his game for which John Terry could provide assistance.

Meanwhile, Villa continued to take gain command and they mounted their first serous attack in the 13th minute. Barkley intercepted a loose ball just inside his own half and passed it off to Grealish who ran at Mee and Tarkowski forcing them to backup furiously then slipped the ball to Watkins who had slipped outside getting a step on Tarkowski as he approached the penalty area. As soon as the striker crossed the line in the right corner, he instinctively blasted a shot. Goalie, Nick Pope, was well positioned, with the angle covered, and able to batt it down and pick it up as Watkins rued that he had not gone for direction.

Not to worry, less than a minute later, Grealish received the ball again on the left with Targett catching up to provide an option outside. Ignoring his fullback, the Villa captain carried the ball to his right looking to shoot while dragging three defenders with him.

Grealish stopped and turned back and laid off a perfect pass for Targett, now with space, to run onto ahead of Lowton. Applying the inside of his foot, the ball’s trajectory intersected Watkins’ path at the 6-yard line as the striker slipped ahead of Bert Mee. With the outside of his right foot, Watkins gave the ball the gentlest of deflections, that sent it on its way to enter the net just inside the right post with Pope frozen to his line. What an exquisite move by Grealish and Targett and finishing by Watkins. Burnley 0, Aston Villa 1 and only 14 minutes gone.

This set off a torrent of Villa attacks. Just minutes later they executed another give and go with Targett performing a cheeky behind his back pass for Grealish to take the ball to the goal line and pull pack for Traore to blast only for his shot to carom off Pope’s shoulder. Traore’s disappointment was short lived. Grealish was inches offside anyway.

Ten minutes later and the Villans were still marauding with Burnley unable to get anything going. The hosts gave up a free kick on the right but headed clear only for the clearance to arrive nicely for Grealish, standing alone just outside the penalty area. No need to bring it under control, Grealish hit a blistering volley only for it to head right at Pope who gratefully gathered it.

At the 38th minute mark, Burnley finally got possession in a promising area, but Brady’s attempt to pull the ball back onto his left foot was well marshalled by Targett and the shot sailed high and mighty.

Two minutes later and Villa threatened again as McGinn, under pressure in his own half, put a no-look perfect pass over Burnley’s backline for Watkins to run onto. Watkins cut across Mee, who was desperately trying to catch the striker without stepping on his heel. Meanwhile, Pope raced off his line and slid down as Watkins shot.

The ball caromed twenty feet in the air and with Pope and Watkins on their knees, Mee continued running toward the empty goal to cover and Tarkowski closed in on Barkley who was well positioned to volley the ball as it came to earth. His shot cleared Tarkowski and Mee, on the line, but came back off the crossbar into play where Traore tracked it down and passed to Grealish who forced another corner.

From the corner, the pressure continued with Barkley taking on the role of place-setter. Receiving the corner, short from Grealish, he froze the Burnley defense so Grealish could sprint outside, accept the pass, and pull back for Traore, alone on the edge of the area to stride in and lash the ball with venom only to see it rebound off Mee but straight to Mings, standing to the right of goal. The defender hit it first time and low, but Pope dropped squeezing his legs to block the ball out for a corner. The presence of ten Claret shirts in their own penalty area confirmed the sense that Burnley could not wait to get into their dressing room to regroup at halftime, just three minutes away.

Still, Villa had one more kick at the can and, this time it was Targett who had an opportunity from the left and he chose to drill it low and hard from close in. Pope’s feet were quick enough, and he had made his umpteenth fine save.

At halftime, manager Smith and the Villa team must have been pleased with their performance in the first half though a little unnerved that one set-piece could let their hosts right back into the game. They seemed intent on maintaining the pressure on Burnley in the second half as Traore ghosted inside from his right wing to whip across all the way over to Grealish positioned on the left side of the penalty area. Backing away to receive the ball on his right foot, he just cushioned it so that it rolled perfectly for John McGinn to run onto and power at goal. Pope, showing why he’s England’s backup to Jordan Pickford, dropped down and made a fine save, all the better for not spilling with Watkins just two yards away.

What was soon noticeable was that, in addition to subbing Jack Cork for Brownhill, Burnley were resorting to long balls to their dual threats (Wood and Rodriguez) and to pressuring the Villa players in possession. The strategy soon worked. In the 50th minute, Mings had momentary control but Wood used his considerable strength to force the England center back into conceding a corner. Westwood, an accomplished corner-taker got enough height to clear Villa’s tall center backs and perfect for Bert Mee running unimpeded to hammer his header into the bottom left corner of the net.

A couple of yards away stood Ross Barkley who, when the corner was taken was the closest Villan to Mee and had looked at him as if to say, “that’s my guy”. Once the kick was taken, Ross became a spectator. He made no attempt to run with the Mee, to lean in or to get a head in the way. I hope Dean Smith (or John Terry) had a talk with him after the game. Burnley 1, Aston Villa 1.

Two minutes later, Villa had a good opportunity with Traore in-possession as he reached the penalty area and Cash tearing down to his right only for the Burkinabe international to hit a shot that deflected off Pieters to Pope. A selfish play that wasted a great opportunity. This also aided the hosts who were gaining in confidence.

Dyche was not pleased with his team’s energy and he brought on Gudmundsson for Brady, a move that paid dividends later.

Eventually, it was Grealish who sparked the Villa. Surrounded by three claret shirts on the left touchline in his own half, he kept a bouncing ball in play, juggled it and, running at full speed, split the threesome with the orb never more than a foot or two ahead of him. As he approached the penalty area Watkins cut to the left offering an option and freeing up the route to goal.

As Grealish entered the penalty area, Jack Cork came into the picture and did the only thing he could, he leant on Grealish and pushed him slightly to his left. Villa’s captain still got off the shot, but it was not wide enough of Pope’s left hand and he was able to use it to parry the powerful shot out. As the commentator noted, if that had gone into goal, it would have been the goal of the season. At it was, it became the “amuse-bouche”.

Shortly after Wood came close with a first time shot from a good set-up from McNeil and Pieters that Martinez superbly saved with one hand, but then Grealish took control again. He found a soft spot of space just outside the penalty area and right in front of the goal. McGinn slipped his captain the ball and Grealish turned and ran at Mee on the edge of the area and, at just the right moment, slid the ball to Luiz on his right. Luiz carried the ball a few yards forward with his eye on goal, but then pulled it across the 6-yard box for Grealish to slide into and redirect with the outside of his right foot into the net. A brilliant team goal! Burnley 1, Aston Villa 2 after 68 minutes.

With time running out for Burnley, Dyche brought on the energetic Vydra in the 75th minute and it had an almost instant impact. He controlled a clearance from Cork while being pressured by Konsa and laid it off to Gudmundsson who sought out McNeil open on the left. Cash managed to get a foot in the way of the pass and the ball rebounded away for Pieters, following, to pick up and complete the pass to McNeil. Meanwhile, Vydra and Gudmundsson both charged toward the penalty area. Villa’s returning forwards, Traore, Barkley and Grealish, were too far away and seemed comfortable that the defense had matters under control.

That was a bad assumption as Pieters continued running towards the goal coincidental with McNeil directing a pass for his fullback to slide into just outside the 6-yard box with Konsa and Mings in close attendance.

The pass just evaded the Dutchman and his markers, but Martinez was frozen, expecting a deflection. The Argentinian goalie threw himself at the last moment to his left and was just short of reaching the ball as it squeaked inches inside the post. Burnley 2, Aston Villa 2 after 75 minutes.

Villa were still ruing their misfortune a couple of minutes later when a speculative ball from Mee landed behind Matty Cash for Vydra to run onto. With Cash catching up, the Czech international laid the ball back for McNeil to curve a high cross into the box. With Gudmundsson dashing towards goal Mings followed him leaving Targett to cover Wood. Despite the cross being high and behind him, the New Zealander rose and got enough power and direction on the header for it to bounce onto the inside of Martinez’s left post and into the net. There was nothing he could do. Burnley 3, Aston Villa 2 after 79 minutes. Mings showed his frustration at making the wrong choice of who to cover (Vydra instead of Wood) by angrily kicking the ball back into the net.

While there was still time, the Villans were depleted and beaten. Despite them controlling most of the game and winning the statistical battle, they came away with nothing other than proving themselves to be a potent force, albeit an unlucky one, in the Premier League.

Burnley: Pope, Lowton, Tarkowski, Mee, Pieters, Brady, Westwood, Brownhill, McNeil, Rodriguez, Wood.

SUBS: Cork (s, 46’), Benson, Dunne, Peacock-Farrell, Bardsley, Long, Vydra (s, 75’), Stephens, Gudmundsson (s, 60’)

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, Bertrand Traoré, Ross Barkley, Ollie Watkins, Jack Grealish (captain)

SUBS: Heaton, Elmohamady, Taylor, Engels, Nakamba, Trezeguet (s 83’), Davis s, 88’), Ramsey, Anwar El Ghazi (s, 83’)

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