Southampton (0) vs Aston Villa (1) – Villa Hang on to Win

The Villa must have been apprehensive heading down to Southampton with only three days to recover from a demoralizing loss at Burnley, losing the lead in the latter stages, and then losing the game with both goals on the soft side.

Like Villa, the Saints were also coming off a tough stretch and were hoping to make something of a home fixture against a team they had beaten earlier in the season. That 4-3 win at Villa Park was notable for a brace of goals from free-kicks by their captain, James Ward-Prowse. Their manager, Ralph Hasenhüttl, an Austrian, intriguingly had selected his captain to play in the right back position to fill in for the injured Walker-Peters who had figured prominently in that first encounter.

The strategy appeared to be to regain that threat on the right, while fielding another midfield player to maximize possession for his team. Evidently, he was confident that, as well as retaining the dead-ball brilliance offered by Ward-Prowse, he would also limit the threat of Villa’s super-star, Jack Grealish with his star’s comparable skillset as his marker. This was an intriguing decision that for the large part of the game worked in his favor.

From the kick-off, ex-Villan Ryan Bertrand, perhaps rejuvenated by a one-game suspension, asserted himself. The predictable long pass by Mings down the right touchline that Watkins usually reaches first was forcefully rebuffed by the determined fullback and, when the ball came back in his direction, he lofted a long pass down the line that forced Konsa to rush back to his goalie and Martinez to rush his clearance. The throw-in for their opposition in the Villa half did not please either of them.

The Villa settled into the game and comfortably sprayed passes around and gained a freekick when Grealish started one of his patented weaving runs across field leaving opposing players in his wake until Diallo tripped him from behind. The cross from Cash was disappointing for him and McCarthy gathered easily. The next time they gained possession, they tried to make inroads on again from the right but were rebuffed again and the ball found its way to Mings deep in his own half.

No problem, Mings saw a match-up he liked, Watkins in front of Bednarek. He lofted a pass from near the left touchline a good fifty yards, or more, to his striker who nodded it back to Barkley ten yards behind him, then turned and ran around the defender. Barkley, showing his experience, immediately slipped a slick pass back giving Watkins the option to shoot. From a distance and angle that Watkins scored against Liverpool and Arsenal, he struck the ball with his left foot only to scuff the shot and send it disappointingly wide of the far post. The off-season buy from Brentford, dropped to his needs and pounded the grass. The team’s first shot after 7 minutes had been a dud.

Not much more than a minute later, the Villa were almost down a goal to the Saints’ first opportunity. It started innocently enough near the Villa’s left corner flag. Ward-Prowse took a throw-in to Redmond (who had dragged Mings out of position) and chipped the return to Ings running towards the goal line and into the penalty area with the slight Luiz blocking has path. No problem for Ings, he flicked the ball with his right heel over his head and, with Luiz ball-watching, the former Liverpool star, swiveled around the Brazilian to regain possession and Martinez and Cash protecting the near post.

Meanwhile, Armstrong was just outside the 6-yard box and Ings laid a pass on a platter and the Saints’ winger side-footed first time only for the ball to bounce up and Konsa to put out for a corner. The Saints were not interested in a corner as they uniformly threw their hands in the air appealing for an apparent penalty for handball by Cash. The referee, Lee Mason, had given a corner and not the goal but agreed to a VAR verification. Certainly, from the television replay, the ball had hit Cash’s arm. What was communicated by the commentators was that the ball had struck Cash’s thigh before deflecting onto his arm and the VAR confirmed that and justified the “no -goal” call. Having been at the losing end of a VAR call, Villa fans would have felt a certain amount of satisfaction that this was just redressing the balance.

It was Southampton who maintained the pressure and came close a couple of more times. After 20 minutes, Bertrand took a Saints corner on the right so he could direct an inswinger with his left foot only for the ball to be blocked but work his way back to him. This time he directed a dangerous cross with his right foot, through the 6-yard box with no teammates interested in taking a chance on attacking the goal. They did, at least, recover the ball and Armstrong was fed the ball in a good position only for Luiz to block the shot.

Even more dangerous appearing was a diagonal cross from Ward-Prowse towards the near post with Ings closing in at speed with Cash right alongside. With it appearing to spell a collision with Martinez, Cash imposed his will and slid ahead of Ings to clear for a corner to the relief of Villa fans everywhere.

The Saints were maintaining most of the possession and Romeu was particularly forceful in midfield, tackling, intercepting, and pushing the ball forward. Armstrong was also effective and it was he who set up the Saints’ next opportunity in the 30th minute, pulling the ball back from the goal line to Bertrand who hit aimed at the near post but putting it a couple of feet wide. Then Romeu was set up by Armstrong, with an even poorer finish. The Spaniard, a graduate of the Barcelona system, skied it well over the bar with his unfavored left foot from the edge of the penalty area.

Just when Villa fans must have been wondering if their Villans were going to show-up with halftime looming. Naturally, it started down the left flank. From an offside well outside their own penalty area, the Villa loaded the left side and Martinez aimed the kick into the mix. Watkins went up with Bednarek and was the first to make contact. Ings gained momentary possession, but with Barkley, Grealish, McGinn, Targett, and even Mings. in attendance, he was shutdown and Grealish almost broke free save. Ward-Prowse was the one who cleared the danger by conceding a throw-in. Targett immediately noted that Grealish was, from his break, open towards the goal line and took a quick throw to his captain. The instantaneous return was pinged over by the fullback to Watkins in a pocket in the penalty area.

The young striker has the ability to control a pass, regardless of how fast, turn, and shoot as fast an anyone and that is exactly what he did. With Stephens right next to him, the defender became an asset as Watkins struck the ball between his legs and to the left of McCarthy who did brilliantly to dive to his left and get out an arm to block the shot.

Villa kept up the pressure and Grealish manufactured another cross out of nothing that Bertrand rose to head clear. Before Southampton were able to get back in the game, they were down 1-0. A goal kick from McCarthy fell to Cash who put a searching ball down the right wing that forced Stephens to concede a throw-in. Cash took the throw to McGinn who pushed the ball back to Luiz who immediately hooked it across the field to Targett with lots of room on the left. With Walcott closing, in Targett chested the ball towards the touchline and away from the forward. Perhaps hoping to put a squeeze on the Villa fullback, Ward-Prowse was set to approach Targett but that gave Grealish the chance to sprint beyond the Saints’ captain and get open to receive the hooked pass down the line.

With two yards of daylight, Grealish had the opportunity to take a peek inside and note Barkley heading into the penalty area with intent and he immediately hooked the bouncing ball so it would arrive at the penalty spot at exactly the same time as his buddy, the Chelsea loanee. With Bednarek and Stephens two yards closer to their goal, they had no time to change direction and compete with Barkley for the cross. In fact, they barely stopped before Ross headed the ball down and it to the left corner of the net.

While Grealish deserves credit for, once again, being the maestro, Barkley finished with great aplomb. It started with him slowing down when he read what Grealish was intending and so he would not run under the cross. Once he was able to judge the cross, he set himself for heading to the left of the goalie, recognizing that McCarthy was moving to his left to reach the center of his goal. Barkley ended up heading back and down with enough power that McCarthy had no chance to even dive. The net effect was he made a difficult execution look as easy as falling off a log. Great goal and just at the right time.

Within a minute the Villa almost doubled their lead. Bertrand got caught too close to Armstrong before passing and Cash nipped in and pushed the ball beyond to Barkley. One of Barkley’s other great attributes is his ability to pick out a teammate to pass through and to do it right away and accurately and firmly so it cannot be intercepted. In this case it was Watkins who was the recipient just outside the Saints’ penalty area. It was not that Watkins was open but, given space to create something, Watkins is very effective.

In this case, Watkins turned with the ball and immediately hit a shot that Bednarek blocked, only for it to come back to the young striker. Facing the direction he preferred, heading towards the opponent’s goal, Watkins moved the ball to his left and rounded Bednarek enough to get another powerful shot away, forcing the goalie to come up with another good save.

Southampton came out after the break with the bit between their teeth, forcing a corner and, thanks to an excellent Ward-Prowse corner with phenomenal whip that handcuffed the defense came up with a couple of chances that Villa managed to get bodies in front of. Finally, the Villa regained possession at the edge of the area. Barkley tried to pass the ball out only to have the pass intercepted by Romeu. Then Barkley almost undid the benefit of his goal by desperately tackling to regain the ball, but fouling the Saint in the process.

The last thing that Villa needed at this point was a direct freekick just outside the penalty area, an opportunity for Ward-Prowse to do what he had done twice in their November game, hammer a shot over the wall and into the top corner. Remarkably, this effort was an attempt to curve around the wall and it bounced off the last defender in the line. A big break and one very relieved Ross Barkley.

That appeared to deflate the home team somewhat and the next big action was on the injury front. First Diallo went down after 59 minutes and he had to be replaced by Djenepo. Then in the 63rd minute, Walcott went down feeling his hamstring and Che Adams was brought on to replace him.

It was the Villa who had the next significant attack. It started with a freekick near the halfway line, on the right and Konsa took it. He noted Targett in space deep on the left of the Southampton penalty area. The pass was arrow-like and came straight towards the fullback’s head. Seeing Grealish approaching he headed back to his captain’s feet. Grealish did his usual magic and worked his way to the goal line, noting on the way, that Traore was open to the right of the net. The pull back was on the money but Romeu had responded to the danger and got his foot in the way to block the pass. Grealish looked over at Traore with a wry smile, probably imagining the bulge in the back of the net that was not to be. What he probably did not imagine was how close that came to being a goal they needed.

Instead of being the scorer of a goal, Traore became very close to being the culprit. It started with clumsy jump to head the ball that was judged to have been a foul that allowed Bertrand to direct the freekick into the penalty area. Luiz headed it out and the ball came, coincidentally, to Traore. The Burkinabe international had the ball bounce away, back to Danny Ings on the edge of the area and he, in turn, noted that Che Adams was open as the Villa defense were still in the process of moving their backline forward. The Birmingham born Adams turned with the ball and was one-on-one with Martinez in a flash and used the outside of his favored right foot to lift the ball over the goalie’s shoulder. The Argentinian’s left arm went up and he blocked the shot. By the time the ball hit the ground, Cash and Martinez converged to clear with Adams thwarted. That was Southampton’s first shot on goal in the 70th minute, and it was almost a game-changer.

That did not slow down Grealish who found himself in the left corner and closed down by Romeu and Djenepo, or so they thought. With a lowered shoulder and a swing of the hips, the Villa magician was goal side of Romeu and carrying the ball along the goal line with nothing the Spaniard could do. Traore had a little space to work just outside the 6-yard box and the ball was delivered to his left foot. Unable to turn and shoot first time the winger took a touch and that was enough for defenders to close in and make sure that the shot was rushed, and McCarthy could gather easily.

What the Adams close call had accomplished was create belief in the Saints’ line-up. In the 83rd minute a neat move by Romeu, Bertrand, and Ings forced Mings to intercept a pass to Adams only to lay it on a platter to Redmond who blasted a shot from 12 yards, only to see a sliding Mings (or possibly Konsa) get a deflection that carried the ball foot or so over the bar.

From the Ward-Prowse corner, Bednarek met the cross at the near post and Martinez did well to get a left hand to parry and with Adams ready to pounce on the rebound, McGinn threw himself in the way with this rebound coming back to Stephens, who hit it just as hard, but this time it was Cash who took the shot on his thigh before Traore managed enough of a clearance for the danger to pass.

It was the Villa who had the next opportunity and, of course, it was courtesy of Grealish’s skill again as he rounded Djenepo on the goal line and induced a trip, just one foot outside the penalty area. The captain left this freekick to Traore to conjure something between them. The decision was simple, and effective, to take it short to Barkley just inside the area for the Chelsea loanee to drag it to his right and pick out the top right corner. Everything worked except Ross did not get his body over the ball and it cleared the bar comfortably.

That was in the 88th minute, but the game had lots of time left courtesy of six minutes of stoppage time. Southampton only needed thirty seconds of that to put the ball in the back of the net. It started with a tussle between Targett, with help from McGinn, and Adams on the right touchline that the beefy Adams won. Showing great vision, he whipped a pin-point pass over to Ings one-on-one with Cash just outside the left corner of the penalty area. Apparently surprised to receive the ball, Ings’ first touch was loose, but he made up with a clever back heel to Redmond who broke the Villa backline.

With the Villa defense scrambling the ball was cleared only for Ward-Price to recover and to pass Bertrand and then to Jankewitz who fed Adams, now in the penalty area. Meanwhile, Bertrand joined the contest that Adams found himself in with Luiz and Mings and was there when the ball popped loose. Not your average fullback, the ex-Villan (and England cap) is always ready for such eventualities and he hit a sweet side-footed bullet that should have settled in Martinez’s top right corner if not for a stunning dive to get a hand on the ball.

What Martinez could not do was control where the save landed and it landed a couple of yards in front of him for Danny Ings to happily bundle into the net. His shouts of joy were soon muted as the referee’s assistant’s flag went up for offside. A stressful VAR review, it was extremely close, finally concluded that by the smallest of margins, Ings shoulder was ahead of any part of Matty cash when the shot was taken. At 90+3’, it was still Southampton 0, Aston Villa 1.

The Villans could not relax yet. It took a powerful headed clearance and McGinn gaining possession in the midfield and rifling the ball towards the Saints’ left corner flag knowing that Grealish would reach it first and maintain control. Just to be sure, the Scot raced over and between these two (the heart and soul of this Villa team) they ran out the clock. Another shutout, their 10th out of 19 games and their 6th shutout win on the road. As for major contributions, Grealish has created more opportunities in the Premier League (32), far more than any of his rivals (Fernandes and Madison included). Maybe top six is a possibility, a dream long forgotten by Villa fans.

Southampton: A. McCarthy, J. Ward-Prowse (captain), J. Bednarek, J. Stephens, R. Bertrand, T. Walcott, O. Romeu, I. Diallo, S. Armstrong, N. Redmond

SUBS: S. Long, C. Adams (s., 65’), M. Djenepo (s, 59’), Y. Valery, K. Ramsay, D. N’Lundulu, F. Forster, A. Jankewitz (s, 89’), C. Watts

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 (s, 90’), Trezeguet, Davis, Anwar El Ghazi, Sanson

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