Aston Villa (0) vs Everton (0) – Some Questions Answered

This game was already past its “sell by date” when January 2021 turned into February 2021.  Another victim of COVID 19, it was unfortunate that it was transplanted just 12 days after the reverse fixture with Villa’s Man United game right between.  Villa’s victory at Goodison Park had all but destroyed the Toffees run at the Europa Cup.  If the statistical mountain they faced was not enough, the Villa had comfortably shown their superiority, even without star and captain Jack Grealish, who was available for this game, if needed.

That was not an encouraging scenario.  I recollect when Matt Ferguson kept Ronaldo on the bench, “just in case he was needed”.  For their opponents, like the Villa, it took all the fun out of taking the lead.  So, without enough belief, what were the visitors going to conjure up to break down Villa’s formidable defense.

In fact, intriguing questions were the fodder that the British pundits relied on to gain eyes to their reportage.  Could Everton defy their reputation for collapsing on the home stretch?  What was required of West Ham, etc. to allow Everton to grab that coveted 6th spot.  Could Liverpool’s neighbor still catch their crosstown (actually their cross-park) rival?

The pundits even broadened their analysis, to their hosts, our Villans.  How would the Villa function without their star striker (Ollie Watkins, who was suspended for one game)?  Would Barkley repeat the greatly improved form that he exhibited at Goodison Park?  Was it possible that Grealish would be nowhere near match fitness if he came on and “laid an egg”? 

According to the live game commentators, the clincher for the Everton fans was that one more away win would set a team record.  The Everton faithful, it appeared, were convinced that the soccer Gods has provided the perfect opponent: a tired Villa team going nowhere, exhausted and demoralized by gifting a penalty to Man U and then that game, and a team with just about as poor a home record as themselves.

When they failed to take the three points, the fans became vituperative.  Not at their team that only conjured up five shots on goal and a measly one corner.  Nor did they contend that Villa’s emphasis on defense was purely meant to rob their team of the points they desperately wanted.  No, it was some poor VAR official who failed to designate a Tyrone Mings tackle as a “red card offense”.  In fact, if they were familiar with Villa’s record, they would have known that Villa’s best home result this season was a 3-0 win over Crystal Palace, for which Mings spent over half of the game in the dressing room.

As for that infraction, it was not for high studs.  It was for two yellow cards for minor offenses that could be interpreted as preventing a goal-scoring opportunities.  Of course, as Villa fans know from personal experience, when their team starts off the season with a flourish and then goes into a swan dive, it is much easier to blame a faceless arbiter.

For Villa fans, the answers to the questions they had at the beginning of the game, were hardly more satisfying.  As hardworking as Keinan Davis is, he pales in comparison to Ollie Watkins.  If he ever reaches five or six goals in a season, he will have exceeded expectations.

Barkley confirmed that he had “flattered to deceive” at Goodison Park.  If all the Villa games could be played there, Ross might have a future in the Premier League.  As for Grealish, the only part of his game that seemed in fine fettle was his hectoring of the referee and opponents who gave him grief.  Yes, he did show signs of his skills, but he is a long way from being at his best and this game did not reassure that he will get there in time for the Euros.

So, what happened on at Villa Park on a Thursday evening at 6:00 pm?  To be honest, not much.  Certainly, a vocal crowd would have helped motivate the home team and animated the players which, in turn, might have provoked the visitors.  With no crowd, there was not much energy on the field.

It was 17 minutes before there was anything significant to note.  Good work by John McGinn in midfield enabled him to win control of the ball from a couple of yellow shirts create space for Targett to cross viciously from the left, forcing Digne to head over his own crossbar under pressure from El Ghazi.  Barkley delivered a decent corner that caused some confusion in the box. Douglas Luiz niftily avoided the mob by taking the inside-right channel the goal line before whipping a low cross to the near post. Mings anticipated and was ready to dive and flash a header inches wide right of the post. It had seemed certain that he would score, and the way he held his head in his hands indicated he felt the same way.

Instead of that igniting a response by either team, the tempo went back to where it had been  Then, again, John McGinn spun into space down the right, looked up, and found Barkley in acres on the edge of the box, Everton’s central defenders had presumably concluded he was not a threat. A precise pass found the Chelsea Loanee, but Barkley took a heavy touch and a chance to step into the box and shoot was gone. Villa fandom around the world joined in a collective sigh.  37 minutes gone and nothing to show.

Everton finally came to life when they found Digne open on the left at 42 minutes.  Earlier in the year fans would have been on the edges of their seats anticipating a stunning cross and a magical leap by Calvert-Lewin.  Perhaps the Villa defense had remembered as they were well positioned for that eventuality.

Instead, Digne arced a lazy looping cross that almost crossed the plane of the goal before descending into the 6-yard box but beyond the far post.  A sliding Calvert-Lewin made a valiant effort to reach the ball with Martinez scrambling across his line and Mings monitoring created a little drama.  The ball ended untidily out of play.

Credit should go to both defenses who, while not spectacular, had been workmanlike and effective in avoiding.  Unfortunately, for the Villa, Matty Cash went down just before the half and aggravated his hamstring injury.  He was withdrawn and replaced by Elmohamady.

Another misfortune was there was apparently no attempt to adapt the team’s offensive strategy with Davis as striker rather than the livewire Ollie Watkins.  To be fair to the team, there was not sufficient time, this being just days after the Man U game.

The second half start suggested that Carlo Ancelotti had found a way to motivate his team.  They came out much better prepared to take the game to Villa with Doucoure imposing himself in midfield.  Of course, it could have been that Luiz and McGinn were doing the work of three between them.

Finally, Everton produced a real opportunity as Allan slipped a pass down the left channel to Calvert-Lewin who attempted to overpower the advancing Martinez.  Villa’s outstanding goalie confidently repelled the shot only for the referee’s assistant to get around to raising his flag.

Five minutes later, in the 51st minute, McGinn found himself the wrong side of Coleman and the Scottish international decided to limit the danger with a shove.  Tactically, this was a good decision as the placement of the freekick was a full 30 yards out and in the middle of the park.  Still, Everton contrived to fashion their first serious threat.

Sigurdsson angled the free kick to the right-hand edge of the six-yard box, for Godfrey to extend a leg and redirect the ball over Martinez at the near post.  The goalie was alert and, with quick and strong hands, pushed it aside for a corner.

Villa finally had a moment in the second half.  At 61 minutes, El Ghazi earned a freekick just outside the box to left and then put enough power and whip to persuade Pickford to punch the web ball only to see it deflect behind for a corner – not what you expect from an England goalie.

When Barkley was replaced by Ramsey a few minutes later, the look of someone facing the reality that he might never play Premier League soccer again was palpable.  The loanee was going back to Chelsea, but there was no spot there for him and nothing he had done for months to cling onto.

When Jack Grealish was brought on the field to substitute for Traore, it was a huge relief to fans who had suffered a 12-game gap of his immense talent.  Typically, his first pass was nonchalant in the extreme, like flicking a fly away.  No, he did not perform at anywhere near the level he had been at when he was forced to take a break from combat.  Still, he did enough to reassure that it is the same Jack, albeit far from match-fitness.  In fact, according to a barbed quip from Francis Lee, former Manchester City great and celebrity.

“Two minutes after coming on, Grealish has already done more running than Barkley did in one hour … or indeed all season.”.

Villa fans will never know whether Grealish’s presence on the field inspired Mings to make a brilliant and goal saving slide to intercept a cross from Richarlison that was destined to be a tap-in for Calvert-Lewin.  It came at a price as the Villa acting captain and Emi Martinez clattered into each other and needed physio assistance to continue.  I suspect that Mings might have eased off, but that’s just an opinion.

A game at home tied, and not lost, and Jack back, was enough for the team and the fans under the circumstances.  That’s how it ended.  Aston Villa 0, Everton 0.

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Matty Cash, Ezri Konsa, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; John McGinn, Douglas Luiz, Bertrand Traoré, Ross Barkley, Anwar El Ghazi, Keinan Davis

SUBS: Steer, Elmohamady (s, 45’), Hause, Ramsey (s, 65’), Grealish (s, 72’), Nakamba, Wesley, Philogene-Bidace, Chukwuemeka.

Everton (4-4-2): Pickford, Holgate, Keane, Godfrey, Digne, Coleman, Allan, Doucoure, Sigurdsson, Richarlison, Calvert-Lewin

SUBS: Delph, King, Nkounkou, Bernard, Iwobi (s, 75’), Andre Gomes (s, 67’),Davies, Virginia, Olsen, Keane

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