Aston Villa (1) vs Leicester (2) – Injury hit Villa, Close but no Cigar

Strange as it may seem, I found myself feeling not too disappointed after this home loss for my Villans, and I would not be surprised if Villa Manager, Dean Smith, is also somewhat sanguine.  Coming off, arguably, their worst performance of the season against Brighton and fielding a weakened squad thanks to injuries to two of their best players, Matty Cash and Jack Grealish, this had the potential to be an embarrassing and demoralizing loss.  Instead, Mings could very easily have tied the game in the last minute of stoppage time.

Naturally, the loss stands in stark contrast to the Villa’s defeat of the Foxes in the King Power Stadium back in October.  Still, there were a couple of asterisks against that win.  The home side had just lost Vardy and Soyuncu through injury, while Ndidi and Amartey were still recovering, and Maddison was only available off the bench.  At that, Leicester gave the Villa much more of a challenge than Liverpool had two weeks earlier and a draw would have been a fairer result.

Fast forward four months and the Villa are comfortably in the top half of the Premier League in eighth spot, just behind Everton and Liverpool and just ahead of Spurs, Arsenal and Wolves.  Remarkably, despite this loss, the results of the teams around them did nothing to change their position and the claret and blues still have games in-hand on those teams.

As for the visitors, Leicester started the game tied with Man U on points for second spot, unbeaten this year in Premier League, FA Cup, and European fixtures with the sole exception of a loss at home to Leeds when they were missing their talisman, Jamie Vardy.  They had won eight games and tied three, a streak only Man City had exceeded.

Regarding line-ups, Brendan Rogers made some interesting changes to the team that had most recently beaten Liverpool at home, 3-1.  He inserted Timothy Castagne at right wingback and Ricardo Pereira ahead of him, presumably to contain the now missing Grealish.  At left wingback, he promoted Luke Thomas to the starting eleven to match his speed with that of Villa’s dangerous Bertrand Traoré.  Marc Albrighton and Daniel Amartey made way for them and sat on the bench.

Smith, meanwhile, surprised some fans and pundits by making only the essential changes to the eleven that faced Brighton.  This manager is inclined to the long view and to patience.  Certainly, Ross Barkley must have been relieved that he had another chance to get back to his pre-injury form.  Smith may have taken Barkley’s goal in that early season 1-0 win over the Foxes into account and that England manager, Gareth Southgate, was on-hand.  With no Grealish to distract, a bravura performance could resurrect this loanee from Chelsea’s chances for selection to the Euros squad.  Ross had a lot to play for.

With Elmohamady to replace Cash, Villa had their most experienced sub, and an Egyptian international to boot.  While Grealish was irreplaceable, in Anwar El Ghazi the team did have a scoring threat (and an excellent penalty taker), and it was conceivable that only one goal would be all that was needed.  While on paper, the manpower changes did not seem overwhelming, psychologically, the combination of losing Grealish and Cash felt like a punch in the gut.  Far more than at any time this season, Villa fans were most anxious to see how their team started the game.

The opening minutes were not reassuring for the Villa faithful.  Elmohamady’s most recent first team outing was on November 30, and it was as a substitute, coming on in the 88th minute against West Ham.  The last time he started was on the first of November against the Championship team, Stoke, in the FA Cup.  The Villa lost both games.  Ahmed was predictably rusty and tentative, and caused the loss of Cash to be noted by the game commentators, not that anyone needed to be told.

Leicester sensed it too, and they buzzed around in a high press.  When Maddison beat Douglas Luiz to a loose ball in the middle of the Villa half, the Foxes’ playmaker sent the ball wide to Ricardo, who played a give and go with Tielemans that the Portuguese international received at the edge of the area and immediately shot to Martinez’s right.  Villa’s superstar goalie, who was well-positioned, dropped and gathered in the shot comfortably.  That was the Foxes first shot on goal.  Only 35 seconds showed on the clock.

A minute later, with Villa yet to cross the halfway line, the Foxes were on the scent again.  McGinn was outmuscled for a ball on Villa’s left and Maddison got a foot in and pushed the ball to Ricardo.  He fed Ndidi, who passed the ball to Barnes and he almost split the defense with a ball between Konsa and Mings for Vardy to run onto.

Fortunately, Mings was close enough to Vardy to be able to lean against the super-striker to impede him enough for Martinez to smartly come out and scoop up the ball and end the threat.  Vardy’s wry smile could have been a nod to Mings or disappointment that he was so close to opening the scoring against the league’s second-best defense after Man City’s.

Leicester’s next attack came about because they were faster and more committed in retrieving a Villa clearance.  Targett, normally so sharp, was also a touch slow getting over to Castagne as he received the pass from Evans.  The cross was a decent one that Mings had to put behind for a corner. Maddison took the corner and, with Evans going down in a shoving match, Mings mis-headed onto the prone Evans and the ball rebounded out to Luke Thomas who hit it on the half-volley only for Konsa to deflect it wide.

Finally, Villa got something going and, predictably, Mings and McGinn started it.  With the Foxes pressing, Mings carried the ball just outside his penalty area and resisted the temptation to pass a long ball downfield where Watkins would be outmanned and outmuscled.  Instead, he rolled a pass twenty yards to McGinn who came to the ball with Tielemans all over him.  Holding off the Belgian international with his powerful hips, he made a half turn to his right and hit a beautiful pass down the left channel that Watkins knew was coming and he reached, ahead of Evans and Soyuncu, at the left corner of the Leicester box.

Controlling, and turning, the young and prolific striker had a split second to select an option.  Either Traoré who had space twenty yards away, but marked by Thomas, or Barkley beyond Traoré, just outside the area in front of the goal would have been preferable to his decision to lay off the ball to the fast arriving El Ghazi with Castagne, in tow, only a few yards away.  One of the four blue shirts, likely Soyuncu got a foot in the way, and the opportunity was lost.

Still, Villa had shown they could transition from defense very effectively and the claret and blues held their own for the next five minutes.  That was until Traoré failed to stay wide enough to cut off Thomas as he received an outlet pass from Soyuncu, and the 19-year-old took off over the halfway line with Traoré trailing by a half stride.  Elmohamady thought he could pinch in at the left touchline but failed, and Thomas’s pass left the dangerous Harvey Barnes heading for goal with impunity.  Traoré showed intent to intercede but, smartly held off what would have been a yellow card infraction for a tackle from behind.  Konsa was on his own to deal with Barnes and positioned himself perfectly and Barnes’s shot hit the back of his leg and rebounded behind his teammates and out for another corner to Leicester.

It was the Foxes who came closeagain whenRicardo was fed the ball at the edge of the area and shot quickly only for Elmohamady to deflect the shotinches over the bar.  Then, a good period of Villa possession was wasted when a bouncing ball came to Barkley who, with plenty of time to control, decided to poke it on to Watkins only for a blue shirt to intercede.  In his attempt to retrieve, Barkley failed to challenge or to give serious chase.  If Ross was trying to impress Southgate, it was not working.

Finally, a little bit of Jack-magic for Villa, but it was from Watkins.  McGinn curved an exquisite pass wide of Evans and behind Ricardo for the ever-willing Watkins to run onto.  With no Jack to lay-off to, the poised transferee from Brentford held off Evans and took a step back towards his own goal.  Evans was focused on not letting the young striker turn.  He did not consider that this Premier League rookie would roll the ball back with his right foot and slip a delightful ball between him and Ricardo to El Ghazi heading full steam into the penalty area.

Soyuncu was pulled over to confront Villa’s Dutch winger and Traoré was open for a second just outside the 6-yard box. Credit to Tielemans and Thomas for sliding in from different directions to smother Traoré’s effort.  The ball bounced away to safety.  Of note, it was Watkins, himself, who had backchecked to dispossess Tielemans and feed McGinn to set the whole play in motion. With 16 minutes and 40 seconds on the clock, Villa had finally announced their arrival.

A little more than a minute later, Leicester took the lead on a break.  When a Villa attack broke down on the left wing, Evans combined with Castagne and Ricardo to find Tielemans who noticed that Villa were undermanned at the back.  A high ball for Vardy to compete for with Konsa should have fallen for Elmohamady except that the Egyptian had been drawn into the jump leaving Barnes open to seize on the loose ball.  Ten yards outside the area with Mings also well positioned, Vardy and Maddison were the winger’s passing options.

Vardy broke to the left and into the penalty area drawing Konsa with him, while Elmohamady faced the ball carrier.  With Maddison arriving up the middle unmarked, Barnes’s pass was perfectly placed and the talented forward did not wait, zipping a side-footed shot over the rain-soaked surface.  Mings, just inside the box, extended his left leg and got a touch to the ball.  The nick was just enough to push the shot a few inches beyond Martinez’s desperate dive and into the net off the inside of the post. A well created and finished goal by Tielemans, Vardy, Barnes, and Maddison.  Aston Villa 0 Leicester 1, and 19 minutes gone.

With Smith looking pensive on the touchline, Luiz had a lapse of concentration and let the ball run for Maddison to send it on to Tielemans who noticed Ricardo slipping into space five yards outside the area.   Mings made sure that he was close enough to block, except that the Portuguese international curved a sensational shot that looked set to nestle into Martinez’s top left corner.  Emi was having none of it, and he took off into a great leap and came down with the ball safely clasped between his two large hands.

The Villa had barely controlled the ball since the goal and Leicester, were coming at them again.  Tielemans was allowed to carry the ball towards the penalty area from the right, and Elmohamady let Barnes get a couple of yards ahead of him cutting in from the left.  Tielemans led Barnes into the area with a pass, but Elmohamady got a piece of the ball and it bounced away.  Konsa was there but Vardy was the quickest to react and he blasted a shot right at Martinez.  The goalie could not squeeze it and it spilled a couple of yards away.  Barnes was on it in a flash and before Martinez could get off his knees the ball was rising over him and into the roof of the net.  Aston Villa 0 Leicester 2, and less than four minutes since the Foxes’ first goal.

It was probably unfair to Elmohamady but, at that moment, it was likely that everyone in the Villa organization, and fandom, was ruing the injury to Matty Cash.  Fortunately, Ezri Konsa stood firm and blocked another Maddison shot soon after and the ball bounced kindly to Martinez who looked calm and resolute.

The balance of the first half played out with Leicester settling back into a defensive shell and willing to rely on fast breaks for opportunities.  If Konsa, who has already scored a couple of goals this season, had not totally missed an excellent Luiz cross right in front of goal, the trajectory of the game would have changed.  As it was, both teams played high caliber soccer with McGinn and Targett shining for Villa.

Neither side made any changes to their squads at the half and the question for the Villa fans was where a goal would come from. Certainly, Watkins had been lively, but he had also been isolated.  The answer came sooner than anyone would have guessed.  As Villa pushed up the left channel, El Ghazi moved inside and drew the attention of Castagne and Ricardo.  When Villa’s Dutch player received a ball in the air, he deftly angled his header down the line for Targett to run onto.  This drew Evans over and out of the penalty area.  Watkins came short, and he drew Soyuncu with him.

McGinn, being a canny Scot, saw the opening behind Soyuncu and headed for the near post while Targett hit one of his excellent curling crosses to the 6-yard box.  McGinn had left his marker, Tielemans, in his dust and only young Luke Thomas was left to protect the house.  Thomas did enough to prevent McGinn getting a shot away, but that left a loose ball bouncing nicely in front of the goal for a waiting Traoré to smash past Schmeichel into the corner of the net.  This was Villa’s first shot of the game, a goal.  It was suddenly Aston Villa 1 Leicester 2, and game on with over 42 minutes to play!

Villa, not surprisingly, had a spring in their step and belief, but a strong run with the ball down the left wing by Harvey Barnes enticed Luiz into fouling and getting a yellow card, not what he needed.  Maddison’s freekick landed temptingly in the 6-yard box at the far post but nobody committed, and Maddison showed his frustration.

Perhaps, anxious to show Gareth Southgate what he could accomplish, Leicester’s answer to Jack Grealish, James Maddison sprayed a phenomenal pass from the right touch line, over Elmohamady, to Barnes’s feet just outside the box on the left.  Barnes controlled perfectly and, zipped a pass to Tielemans who passed it back to Maddison on the edge of the area.  Leicester looked very dangerous once again.

Still, the Villa, were over their opening flutters and, when Maddison thought he had an opening for a left-footed blast, Luiz was well-positioned to get his left foot in the way.  It was a great block and one that reverberated from Maddison’s foot all the way up his leg.  That became obvious from the physio work later on the field. 

Villa were now getting more possession, but they were lacking Grealish’s creativity.  It was Leicester, again, that came up with a great play.  Evans saw Barnes cutting inside Elmohamady and the Northern Ireland international found him with a 40-yard pass that the winger brought down brilliantly with his heel on the run.  If the Egyptian fullback had not clattered him, Barnes would have been bearing down on Martinez.  As it was, the fullback was lucky to only get a yellow card.  Maddison, appearing to have recovered, took the freekick and forced Martinez into a topclass save to prevent the ball going into his top left corner. Still, the Argentinian international pounded his gloves, annoyed that he was unable to bring the ball down in his two hands, letting it squirm away for a corner.  The corner came to nothing.

Maddison, still feeling the effects of the earlier blocked shot, had to leave the game, with Mendy subbing.  Meanwhile, Vardy had reminded the Villa backline that he is always a threat, managing to hit a shot across the face of the goal from the tightest of angles.

With Maddison out of the line-up, Vardy became more involved in Leicester’s attacks but wasstymied by Martinez who did well to rush out to the edge of box to grab the ball a step ahead of the striker.  Then, when it looked like Vardy had a step on Mings, the outstanding Villa defender caught up and shepherded Vardy wide, leaving him only the side of the net to shoot at, which he did.  Goal kick.

With Villa running out of ideas and energy, Smith brought on Trezeguet and Jacob Ramsey for El Ghazi and Ross Barkley.  Barkley was, evidently, very miffedInstead of immediately getting off the pitch and keeping his feelings to himself, he sat at the side of the fieldand removed his boots, pads, and socks.  Maybe he was sensing this was the end of his chance to play for England. In fact, Dean Smith may have decided it was the end of his run with the Villa. His lack of mental and physical energy on the field was noted by many observers.

Ramsey had an immediate impact, making himself available in midfield to receive a pass from Luiz and carrying the ball with purpose towards the penalty area.  That forced Castagne to respect his threat and, when he laid off a pass to Targett, the wing-back had lots of time to curl a perfect cross to the edge of the 6-yard box.  It was too high for Watkins to get on the end of, but that meant that his markers, Evans and Soyuncu, were also sidelined. The battle came down to Traoré and Thomas with the Villan looking more determined and likely to get a head on the ball arriving at a perfect height and right in front of the net.  The Burkinabé international raced to meet the cross only for the young defender to do just enough to disrupt Traoré who got a piece of the ball, but not solid impact with his forehead.  No brace this time, not even a corner.  A goal kick and a dose of frustration!

Ramsey wasn’t finished having a positive influence.  When Traoré passed a tentative ball while trying to escape the clutches of three blue shirts, it was Ramsey who swooped in and immediately dispatched a pass to Watkins who one-touched a pass to Trezeguet cutting inside from the left.  Trezeguet set himself to shoot from the edge of the area.  What started so well, floundered when the Egyptian’s standing leg slipped, and the shot became a gift to Schmeichel who gathered.

Smith had one more role of the dice and he brought on his new French signing, Morgan Sanson in the 81st minute for Luiz.  Another sub who had an immediate impact.  Sanson passed to Elmohamady on the right wing and then headed down the line where the fullback found him.  With bodies in the box, Sanson immediately attempted a cross that Thomas blocked for a corner. The corner did not lead to anything, but within a minute Sanson was again influential as he led a break from his own penalty area with a sharp pass to Trezeguet on the wing.  While that failed to yield anything, the Frenchman was not done, taking on theresponsibility to take a corner in the five added minutes.  The cross was crisply hit into a dangerous area but headed clear.

As time wound down, the Villa were able to fashion one decent opportunity that could so easily have rescued the game.  Credit to the industry of Traoré and the skill of Elmohamady to combine for a perfect cross.  Mings was there and he came very close to directing the header on-target, but the effort flashed just wide, and Leicester clung on to the three points.

The good news going forward is that, even with Cash and Grealish missing, the Villa are competitive with any team in the Premier League with the exception of Man City.  Still, it probably puts Europe out of the picture for this year.  There again, ending up around their current position (8th) would be a great step up for the organization and what they deserve.

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Ahmed Elmohamady, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings (captain), Matt Targett; Douglas Luiz, John McGinn, Bertrand Traoré, Ross Barkley, Ollie Watkins, Anwar El Ghazi

SUBS: Tom Heaton, Neil Taylor, Trezeguet (67’ for El Ghazi), Marvelous Nakamba, Morgan Sanson (81’, for Luiz). Keinan Davis,), Jacob Ramsey (76’ for Barkley), Hayden Lindley, Carney Chukwuemeka

LEICESTER (4-2-3-1): Kasper Schmeichel, Timothy Castagne, Jonny Evans, Caglar Soyuncu, Luke Thomas, Youri Tielemans, Wilfred Ndidi, Ricardo Pereira, James Maddison, Harvey Barnes, Jamie Vardy.

Subs: Danny Ward, Marc Albrighton, Kelechi Iheanacho, Daniel Amartey (76’ for Ricardo), Cengis Under, Hamza Choudhury (88’ for Tielemans), Nampalys Mendy (64’ for Maddison), Christian Fuchs, Vontae Daley-Campbell.

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