Crystal Palace (3) vs Aston Villa (2) – Villa Start Brightly and Fade

The changes that manager Dean Smith made from the mid-week game at home to Everton had a significant impact on the way Aston Villa approached this game.  Kortney Hause replacing Tyrone Mings (banged up and overdue a break going into games against Spurs and Chelsea to round the season), Elmohamady continuing his substitution of Matt Cash (injured at the end of the first half against Everton), Jacob Ramsey replacing Ross Barkley (confirming that the Chelsea loanee’s flirtation with a Premier League spot with Aston Villa was over), and Ollie Watkins (coming back from a one-game suspension to take over from Keinan Davis).

It was not the impact that manager Dean Smith would have wanted, but from the kickoff until halftime, an impact that would have pleased him no end.  Certainly, Hause brought with him the confidence of having contributed the pivotal second goal when he converted a rebound off the bar as Villa were playing a man short (that man being Tyrone Mings) in the home end of their duel with Crystal Palace.  Now in Selhurst Park, Hause seemed anxious to add to his small tally.

Watkins appeared even livelier than usual as if he’d had an extra week off.  Ramsey was similarly energized by the sight of a stadium less foreboding than the hallowed Villa Park.  Elmohamady may have been taxed by the extra minutes only three days after an energetic 45 minutes of defensive effort against Everton.

All four of these irregular players were very conspicuous out of the gate as was the team as a whole.  Perhaps, with nothing on the line (the potential to play in Europe next year had slipped out of their grasp), there was an opportunity to demonstrate their individual cases for more first-team selection.  The play of midfield standouts, John McGinn and Douglas Luiz, Matt Targett and Anwar El Ghazi was certainly beneficial to the four.  Add to that the rain that made everything happen faster, and it was a great opportunity to shine.

Within two minutes Watkins had found space, taking off down the inside-left channel where Targett found him.  Kouyate and Cahill had to respect his shooting ability and almost invited the young striker to pass.  Ramsey had seen the potential and sped up inside.  Watkins’ lay-off was perfectly weighted and Ramsey decided to use the passes speed to place the ball in the goalie’s top left-hand corner.  It was similar to Traore’s goal against Newcastle in January when his shot hit the underside of the crossbar and rebounded into the back of the net before any Magpie could move, except it was more difficult.  Traore’s shot left his boot at 90 degrees, maximizing friction whereas Ramsey’s was at an obtuse angle and with a wet ball.  That it was only a couple of feet wide of the target was remarkable.

Unfortunately, the miss reminded the 19-year-old that he has yet to score at the Premier League level, something that will prey on the mind of someone who has never faced adversity coming through the system.  Not surprisingly, Ramsey lost some of the spring in his step and had difficult imposing his presence (brilliant control and lightning speed) on the game.

Even without the best that Ramsey had to offer, the Villa were dangerous whenever they gained possession, and they had most of it.  Hause almost scored from two consecutive corners from the right by Traore.  Both times Joel Ward was the defender who had to block out Hause.  In neither case could he maintain his feet nor beat the Villan to the ball, but he made enough of a nuisance of himself that Hause was unable to straighten himself to head into the back of the net.  Close both times, but no cigar and one very frustrated Villan.

It took two similar and perfectly executed offensive thrusts by the Villans to finally break through.  Both featured an incisive pass by Targett.  The first was down the line for El Ghazi who skimmed a cross that Cahill blocked and tried to direct to another red and blue shirt only for the super-quick Traore to intercept and feed Ollie Watkins to the right of the Eagles’ goal.  The young Villa striker might be the quickest striker to turn on a ball and fire a shot to a corner of the net, often without looking.  This shot exploded of his foot and was heading to Butland’s top left corner necessitating a save of the highest level to turn around the post.

Then, less than two minutes later, the Villa turn a Palace attack on its head.  A loose ball in the Villa half was going out and giving the Eagles possession until El Ghazi astutely nodded it back to Targett who first timed a volley to (or at) Watkins on the halfway line.  It says something that the Kouyate would perceive that the Villa strike, his back to the opposition goal, represented a threat that had to be met.  Kouyate flattened Ollie and the Villans quickly organized for a freekick by Luiz.  The location, towards the center of the field was not attack-friendly but Elmohamady solved that by a delayed run into space on the right wing.

A lateral pass arrived at the Egyptian international’s feet and, seeing Watkins heading into an inside right channel, he fashioned a perfectly weighted pass for the striker to run onto.  Cahill, who was too flat-footed to intercept, did the next best thing he could think off and that was to dive and head the ball away.  What he could not do was make sure that John McGinn did not get on the end of this perfect set-up.  The ball had plenty of momentum as it skimmed over the wet grass allowing the Scot to meet it, five yards out of the area, with the inside of his left foot and aim at Butland’s right post.

If ever there was a slide-rule shot, this was it.  Butland who had been facing to the left half of the field now had to move forward to reduce the angle and dive the full extent of his line towards the right post.  The goalie was a split second too late and the shot rebounded off the inside of the post into the back of the net.  Crystal Palace 0, Aston Villa 1 in the 17th minute of the game.  Once again, the Villa had scored the opening goal.

While Villa had dominated play and shots on goal, there was still an air of mischief about these Eagles.  Christian Benteke, the Belgian ex Villan had been experiencing a recent improvement of form and goals and he had threatened a couple of times with his ability to rise well above defenders to reach headers.  While Zaha has seen a recent drop in his form, he can never be discounted.

Sure enough, out of nothing, young Mitchell, the left-back came up to contribute and lofted a high arcing cross that Benteke could run onto and overwhelm Hause then place the header neatly in the corner of the net.  In the 32nd minute, it was Crystal Palace 1, Aston Villa 1.

This was a slap in the face for the Villans who had dominated play and they immediately set about correcting matters.  It was relatively easy.  A clever dash by McGinn around the Palace defense to the goal line allowed the Villans most consistent player to whip over a cross to Ollie Watkins, well watched in the 6-yard box.  A Palace header sent the ball vertically, a situation that Watkins thrives on.  He places himself under the ball and constantly executes the best vertical leap in terms of height and timing.  What he also does, again, quite remarkable, is he knows where to direct the ball.

Outnumbered by red and blue shirts, Ollie knew that El Ghazi knew was about six-feet behind him.  On his head contacting the ball in the air he deflected it behind him onto the feet of El Ghazi who instantly swept the ball with his right foot through Butland, frozen on his line.  Goal!  Crystal Palace 1, Aston Villa 2.  The Villa were back in the lead in the 34th minute.

Crystal Palace came out for the second half, determined to make a game of it.  Villa, playing their second game in three days and with two big games on the horizon (at Spurs and home to Chelsea) were evidently content to hold the lead they had.

That was working fine until Benteke got another chance for a header in the 59th minute.  This time it was from Townsend and Benteke had to back away before rising, yet still generated immense power with his noggin and Martinez had to be at his best to claw the ball away as it was sneaking under the crossbar.

It was symptomatic that when Villa did yield a second goal, it was a case of the back line getting caught up field.  When a Villa attack broke down Elmohamady scurried back, but Konsa was forced out to cover Zaha who carried the ball into the penalty area from the left.  Worse than having to cover for his fullback, Konsa had to have been horrified that Elmohamady turned his side into Zaha’s shot and deflecting it past Martinez at the near post.  Crystal Palace 2, Aston Villa 2 andin the 76th minute.

Now Palace had the momentum and, with Grealish only feeling his way back, they could not get back control of the game.  Similar to the Burnley game, they went from their best performance to their worst,  With Eze becoming increasingly influential a mis-hit shot left a ball bouncing in the 6-yard box and it was teenager Mitchell who had the most desire and he bodied the ball into the net at 84 minutes, and it was Crystal Palace 3, Aston Villa 2 in the 84th minute.

Villa had nothing left and that’s the way the game ended.

CRYSTAL PALACE (4-4-2):Butland; Ward, Kouyate, Cahill, Mitchell; Townsend, McCarthy, Schlupp, Eze; Benteke, Zaha. 

SUBS:  Hennessey, Guaita, Batshuayi, Kelly, Mateta, Ayew, Riedewald, Dann, Tomkins (s, 73’).

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Elmohamady, Ezri Konsa, Kourtney Hause, Matt Targett; John McGinn, Douglas Luiz, Bertrand Traoré, Jacob Ramsey, Anwar El Ghazi, Ollie Watkins

SUBS: Steer, Grealish (s, 64’), Taylor, Engles, Barkley, Nakamba, Wesley (s, 88’), Davis (s, 85’), Chukwuemeka

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