Aston Villa (3) vs Fulham (1) – Villa Make a Statement


If ever a game came loaded with symbolism, this was it.  It was a fixture that was crucial for Fulham but, seemingly, of little significance for our Aston Villa.  With our star player and talisman, Jack Grealish, still unfit to play and the team mired in 10th position, a token effort by the claret and blues would have been understandable.

Fulham must have been anticipating that fate had played them a kind hand.  A win could take them above Newcastle in their fight for Premier League survival, a situation the Villa found themselves in at a similar juncture last year when the Villa were lined up against Crystal Palace.  In that game the Villa were themselves a goal behind before VAR scrubbed it.  They went on to gain an invaluable 3 points, thanks to a brace of goals by Trézéguet.  Fulham found themselves in a similar scenario when VAR erased a penalty call just before halftime and soon after the break took the lead.

With not a single come-from-behind-win all season, most Villa fans would have settled for a tie.  In fact, there was only one of those (against Chelsea) to draw hope from.  That Fulham’s goal came from a Tyrone Mings’ miscue was particularly galling, especially for the acting captain, who had rued the two preventable goals against Spurs in a post-game interview.

Manager Dean Smith must have been concerned that the team he had selected had yet to test the Fulham keeper and, his leading goal scorer, Ollie Watkins, had yet to receive the ball at his feet anywhere near the Fulham goal.  Smith realized that he had to do something.  Failure meant that Villa would be branded a “one-man team” and that would be disastrous.  The rest of the team’s morale would be shot!  How could the team build for future success on such a weak foundation?  How could they avoid losing all the momentum they had accumulated early in the season?

The manager’s response was to make substitutions aimed to get back into the game.  That meant forgetting the Ross Barkley project (the attempt to resurrect a languishing talent) and to get Morgan Sanson up to Premier League fitness.  Next, he had to avoid losing Douglas Luiz to a second yellow card.  He immediately brought on Trézéguet (for a tepid El Ghazi) and soon followed with Davis (for a tiring Sanson) and Ramsey (for Luiz).  The two Villa players who had scored for their countries during the international break kept their spots (Watkins and Traoré).

Trézéguet has consistently hustled, especially off the bench, if sometimes being so frenetic that his shooting suffered.  Still, it was his performances in those “Project Restart” games, against Crystal Palace and Arsenal, where his goals won the games and Smith knew that could be repeated.

Smith also recognized that the 4-2-3-1 formation was leaving Watkins isolated, and he needed a foil next to his striker.  The ever-willing Keinan Davis met that need while Ramsey with his speed and commitment, would be a perfect replacement for Luiz’s strength in those departments.  In hindsight, it is easy to see how the Villans have lost valuable points this season by their previous selections off the bench.

As Smith had candidly stated, it was very important to demonstrate to fans, to Grealish’s teammates, and to Grealish, himself, that the team can win without him.  Similarly, it was imperative that the team knew that allowing the first goal did not mean the game was unwinnable.  This game proved that point.

By winning, Smith could keep the hope of European football alive, especially with Arsenal, Everton, Chelsea, and Spurs stumbling.  That this game’s two starting teams comprised players who had all been born after the Premier League was founded in 1992 portended a bright future for Villa, and a whole bunch of symbolism for one game of footie!  So, what happened?

From the kickoff, it would have been very easy to figure out which team was missing their star player and which featured an international player coming off a 5-goal performance in the Euro 2021 Qualifiers.  Aleksandr Mitrovic tested Emi Martinez twice in the first few minutes before the Villans had even got the kinks out.

Then Luiz found himself the wrong side of Loftus-Cheek heading towards the Villa penalty area after 16 minutes and felt it necessary to take a yellow card, and thus put himself in difficult circumstances for the rest of the game.  To compound his problems, he was on the end of an excellent cross from Matty Cash after 35 minutes, only to head well over the bar.  Cash must have wondered what he was doing wrong. His first cross, early in the game, was totally missed by the usually reliable Watkins.

Sanson, given another opportunity to start, showed more truculence than brilliance.  He has the skill and speed to cut though most defenses and is already getting some of the Grealish-treatment (rough and painful).  Still, complaining to referees, at this stage, will not help his cause.  Certainly, niggling fouls in retaliation could be very costly.  When he brought down Lookman in the 35th minute, it led to a delightful cross that had Martinez and Konsa colliding and, but for an important touch by Cash, could have fell for Andersen to turn into an empty net.

Traoré fell into a similar trap, whining about missed calls for the abuse he was taking.  He must have further aggravated his manager by a careless cross field pass that was intercepted by a Cottager and led to a good scoring opportunity.

It was only thanks to John McGinn, rejuvenated by his goals for Scotland, who caused any concern to the Fulham backline.  In fact, it should have led to the Villa being awarded a penalty in first half injury time.  Through his hustle, he cut through most of the Fulham defense, enticing Lemina to shove him over.  The players stopped in anticipation of the whistle being blown, including Lemina, but no whistle was sounded.  It was Watkins who reacted first, and he pounced to get the ball that stood, ignored, in the 6-yard box.  Lemina recognized what was happening and slid his foot in to clear.  Watkins’ and Lemina’s feet, and the ball, met around the same time, Ollie went down and referee, Andy Madley, pointed to the penalty spot.

After the VAR official reviewed, he suggested that Madley also review and, upon further evidence, Madley reversed his call.  What he did not do was review the push on John McGinn that would likely have resulted in a Villa penalty.  In retrospect, that would have been the worst thing for everyone.

As it was, the Villa players, other than McGinn, were probably glad to focus on the missed penalty call and not their lethargic performance regardless of what their manager said in their halftime break.  Nothing that happened after the break suggested otherwise.  That Mings was able to outpace Mitrovic to a Loftus-Cheek pass was reassuring, though not a surprise.

What was a surprise was that Mings was guilty of a “howler.”  Of course, even howlers usually have extenuating circumstances.  This one certainly did.  Sanson had plenty time to decide what to do with possession on the left at the halfway line.  All his options were covered and, somewhat desperately, he set to curve a hopeful pass over to the right flank.  At best, it came with the risk of being intercepted.  At worst, it invited a foot blocking and that is what happened.  The deflection came, spinning, closer to Konsa and he trapped/passed back to Mings as he was being pressed by Mitrovic.  The striker immediately turned his attention to Mings who attempted a one-touch pass back to Martinez who had come out of his goal to receive.

The ball was still spinning and Mings totally mishit the pass allowing the striker to gather and waltz around Martinez and roll the ball into the empty net.  Fulham had drawn that important first blood.  Aston Villa 0, Fulham 1.  Mings looked at the heavens for an answer and found none.  There were 60-minutes on the clock.

Smith threw Trézéguet on for El Ghazi and Villa attempted to regroup.  Within a few minutes, Davis was brought on for Sanson and Smith changed their formation with Davis lining up alongside Watkins as dual strikers.  With space available down the left wing, Targett took advantage and McGinn found him with a 50-yard pass only for the fullback to let his trap at speed show enough for Tosin to slide over and clear at the expense of a corner.  Villa were still looking for their first shot on goal.

Fulham were not parking the bus and they forced their way into the penalty area before McGinn adroitly intercepted a pass in his own 6-yard box for Konsa to clear.  A couple of minutes later Fulham were again advancing down their left flank only for Konsa to nip ahead of a pass and return the favor to McGinn.  While the Scot protected the ball, an out-of-control Decordova-Reid slid in to tackle and picked up a yellow card.  McGinn quickly slid the ball to Cash who lofted a pass down the right channel to Davis who chested the ball down and protected it while Traoré sidled inside, took possession, and from fully 30 yards, shaped a decent shot that Areola saved comfortably.  At least the Villans had a shot on goal while there were still 15 minutes left in the game.

With the energetic subs, now including Jacob Ramsey for Luiz, doing most of the running, Fulham started to look flustered. Traoré took advantage to put over a beautiful arced cross that Trézéguet attacked from his position on the left, only to get ahead of the ball.  His header went closer to the right corner flag than to the goal.  Still, the intent was there as the Egyptian international shook his head.

Traoré’s next cross was to Targett on the left and he executed a give-and-go with Mings who headed to the goal line.  Fulham’s Dutch international defender, Tete, positioned himself to block a high cross, but from his 6” height advantage Mings could see Trézéguet breaking towards him at the back of the penalty area.  The pass was dispatched, behind Tete, crisply along the turf and Trézéguet met it two yards behind the penalty spot and swept the ball with his left foot just inside the near post leaving Areola frozen on his line.  Fulham’s four defenders lined along the 6-yard box were similarly transfixed.  The Villa had equalized and Trézéguet had his first goal of the season in the team’s 29th game!  Aston Villa 1, Fulham 1 in the 78th minute.

Bursting with confidence, a minute later the winger spun his marker as he received a pass from Targett, and, racing towards the goal, enticed a desperate trip.  As Targett readied the free kick, Trézéguet headed for the right-hand corner of the penalty area and found space. The cross was only partially cleared and came straight towards Trézéguet.  In one motion, the Egyptian international connected on the half-volley and the ball flew just inches outside the top right-hand corner of the uprights.  Trézéguet ’s expression suggested he was not surprised that he had come so close to scoring a second.

It was all claret and blue now and when a group of Villans, including Ramsey, Trézéguet and Davis, converged on Lemina in the center circle, the scorer of Fulham’s game-winner against Liverpool, was forced into a rash pass back to Tosin. The center back was immediately overwhelmed by Davis who stole the ball, brushed the 6’ 5”, 175 lb. defender aside and headed down the right channel at speed with Traoré following.  More importantly, Watkins was running towards the goal forcing Andersen to get tight to Ollie.  Meanwhile, Trézéguet had reacted instantly to the change of possession and was ten yards behind Andersen.

Davis had the composure to look up and execute one of the best assists you will be fortunate to see.  The ball was hit firmly behind Watkins and Andersen with enough spin that it curved down into the winger’s path just outside the 6-yard box.  With no markers to worry about Trézéguet turned his body and swept the ball with the inside of his right foot just inside the left post with Areola desperately scurrying along the line.  The Villa were in a strange place, leading after having been behind!  Aston Villa 2, Fulham 1 in the 81st minute.  Less than 3 minutes and two goals to a Villan who had not scored all season.

The Fulham defenders looked mortified.  Just a few minutes prior they were looking at 3 points that would go a long way to keeping them in the Premier League.  Now nothing.  Lemina and Loftus-Cheek were replaced, but too late. 

It soon got worse.  After Davis prevented Tete getting a pass out from the left corner flag, he had to settle for a throw-in.  Ramsey jumped in to intercept the throw, fed it to Mings who gave it to Trézéguet (yes, that guy again) who carried the ball across the face of the penalty area before feeding Traoré while presenting the Burkina Fasso international with a passing option.

As the two defenders set themselves for the possibilities, Traoré selected the one they least expected.  He dropped his shoulder and went to his right.  He had a yard of space as he headed toward the goal line and, without looking, slid over a delicious daisy cutter of a pass for Watkins.  The striker had to merely step into the 6-yard box and shape his right foot for the redirection.  Ollie had broken his 7-game drought!  Aston Villa 3, Fulham 1 in the 87th minute.

To say that Manager Dean Smith looked mightily relieved and pleased is an understatement, especially with much of the credit going to his selections off the bench.  It also let him deflect questions about Grealish’s availability against a rejuvenated Liverpool.  Indeed, he was able to announce that his team would be taking a couple of well-earned days off before heading back to their training facility.

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

SUBS: Heaton, Taylor, Nakamba, Barkley, Trézéguet (s 63’), Engels, Elmohamady, Davis (s 68’), Ramsey (s, 74).

Fulham: (4-2-3-1): Areola, Tete, Andersen, Tosin Adarabioyo, Aina, Reed, Lemina, Reid, Loftus-Cheek, Lookman, Mitrovic. 

SUBS: Ream, Ivan Cavaleiro (s 47′), Bryan, Onomah (s 83′), Maja (s 83′), Zambo, Kongolo, Ramirez, Robinson.

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