Tottenham (1), vs Aston Villa (2) – With Grealish and Mings, Villa Prevail

Spurs fans could have been forgiven for being out of sorts for this, their first game of the season with fans in their stadium, 10,000 of them.  It could have been a time to celebrate if they had held off Manchester City in the Carabao Cup and that pesky Leeds team two weeks later.  They could have comfortably made it into the Europa Cup next season and, who knows, the Champions League the year after.

Instead, they had to face the conclusion that their local hero had come to.  Their team was going nowhere fast, not with the current ownership and front office.  This was just two years after they reached the Champions League final against Liverpool and that Liverpool team this season all but decimated by injuries.  What a difference a few weeks make.

No wonder the fans were edgy, to say the least.  Probably, the interim manager, Ryan Mason, was edgy because his team selection drew questions by the experts as well as their fans.  Where was Lucas Moura, the outstanding player when Spurs overran Villa just two months ago at Villa Park?  Since he was on the bench, he could not have been injured.  Why Winks?  Perhaps they were saving Gareth Bale (also on the bench), Ndombele, and Moura for the big game away to Leicester just four days away in this compacted COVID-19 schedule.

Meanwhile, Villa fans had a rosier view of their team’s line-up.  After three months of missing captain and talisman, Jack Grealish, he was starting and, after a minor knock, Tyrone Mings was back from a well-deserved one-game rest and marshalling the defense.  This was the strongest line-up that manager Dean Smith could put out with him choosing to replace Douglas Luiz with Marvelous Nakamba, hoping for the kind of defensive performance that the Zimbabwean international had put out against Arsenal in February.  The only other change was forced by Matty Cash’s recurring hamstring injury and, this time, Smith opted to put Ezri Konsa at right back to handle Son Heung-min while filling Konsa’s slot with Kortney Hause who had looked impressive against Crystal Palace.

While on paper Smith appeared to have won the line-up competition, the facts on the ground made his selections look suspect.  The first few minutes suggested that both teams felt confident and were committed to attacking football.  A strong move by Spurs looked like Tanganga was going to get an opportunity on the overlap on the right, but El Ghazi won the foot race and intercepted to quell the danger.  Meanwhile, Watkins and McGinn hustled and bothered Spurs, especially Hojbjerg, with their high press, and Grealish immediately drew a foul by Winks.

Then, a casual clearance by Hause with his weaker right foot, allowed Reguilón to nip in front of Traoré and head the ball in the general direction of Dele Alli and Bergwijn.  In fact, it was Nakamba who was closest to it, but he was a little lax in bringing the bouncing ball down and Bergwijn was on him, deflecting the ball past and using his compact body to thwart the Villa midfielder.  McGinn came from the other side but, again, the Dutch international player was swarthy enough to rebuff.  As he reached the penalty area, Bergwijn had Hause on his left and Mings on his right in a pincer movement ready to slide across.  The ball, in the meanwhile, had its original momentum from the deflection and comfortable bounce.

You would not have guessed that this was a player who had failed to score in 41 games as he pummeled the ball with the outside of his right foot on the half volley and watched it explode into the top of the Villa net wide of, and above, goalie, Emi Martinez’s left shoulder.  The fans in the stadium were ecstatic.  This was what they had dreamed of seeing live for over a year, though probably by a Kane, an Alli, or a Moura.  The Spurs players acted equally pleased and surprised.  To take the lead in the 8th minute with such a stunning statement of a goal against one of the Premier League’s top keepers was comfort for their soccer souls.  Tottenham Hotspur 1, Aston Villa 0.

The visitors’ reaction was surprisingly sanguine, especially compared to teams of a few years back.  No pointing of fingers or hanging of heads.  In fact, if you had just entered, and missed the goal, you would not have guessed what you had missed.  The Villans played with the same quiet assurance that they had from the kickoff.

Just a couple of minutes later, Nakamba muscled Dele Alli off the ball and, via McGinn, Grealish had possession.  Alli tried to prevent Villa’s captain from carrying but was forced into a freekick.  With the ball still in the Villa half, Grealish looked up, place the ball, and hit a perfect 60-yard pass for Watkins to race Toby Alderweireld and Eric Dier for.  The defenders would have been in trouble, but Hugo Lloris, the Spurs goalie was closer.

The problem Lloris had was that the ball was running wide of his left post while bouncing.  An attempt to grab it was fraught with risk.  Mishandle and the striker has an empty net to shoot into.  Instead, he decided to block Watkins’ path, hoping that the Watkins would slow down to avoid contact.  Ollie did no such thing.  He went for the ball and Lloris continued his slide, bringing down Watkins while the ball was still in play.

This happened to be the identical scenario that led to Harry Kane being gifted a penalty kick when Spurs faced Villa at Villa Park in February.  Kevin Friend was the VAR official on each occurrence.  His inconsistency (he did not award a penalty this time) suggests he is no friend of Aston Villa.  Meanwhile, Dean Smith and Watkins remonstrated.

Villa responded well to that frustrating call.  When Spurs orchestrated a multi-pass attack that came to Reguilón, his volley from the edge of the area appeared menacing but Nakamba was immediately in front to block the shot.  From then on, Villa slowly took possession of the play, dominating the midfield and harassing Spurs defenders and forcing them to clear long for Villa to start over in possession.  During this period Grealish set-up an attack on the left and completed it, with dangerous cross that was a little to high for Watkins to reach.

The Villa captain then delivered the ball to Watkins’ feet at the edge of the area and the striker created room to strike a shot intended for Lloris’s bottom right hand corner but dragged it, almost perfect tor Traoré entering the space, but Spurs cleared.  A couple of minutes later, Traoré carried the ball in from the right wing, demanding lots of attention, given his stellar left foot.  This meant that nobody was focused on Grealish. Traoré slipped him the ball just five yards outside the middle of the area and enough time to curve a shot with his right foot to Lloris’s left post.  The goalie scurried over to cover as it curved just outside the upright.

Villa continued to control possession and create openings with Spurs, apparently, unable to regain possession.  Eventually, the ball came to Nakamba positioned in the inside-left channel and he carried towards the penalty area before hooking a cross that must have been meant for either Watkins or Traoré, but instead headed directly to the Spurs left back. Sergio Reguilón was surprised to be the recipient and decided to send it back in the opposite direction with his right foot.

That is not the Spaniard’s best foot.  The ball went in exactly the opposite direction intended and looped into Lloris’s top left corner of the net.  The full back dropped to his knees, mortified, and Eric Dier grabbed his arm as if to say, “we don’t act like that here!”. Tottenham Hotspur 1, Aston Villa 1, with 20 minutes on the clock.

Villa almost added another tally when Watkins connected with a Targett cross that crashed off the body of Dier right in front of the net, while McGinn was a little high with his shot from just outside the area. 

Slowly, Spurs were able to establish some possession and managed to press Villa deep in their own half.  In doing so, McGinn was tempted to make a dangerous pass across his own penalty area that Hojbjerg anticipated and was about to turn into a shot on goal.  He just had to get around Mings first.  The Danish midfielder is sturdy enough to force his way past most defenders, but not one with the size and skill of Mings.  The England international just kept his body in the way and eventually the Dane crumbled and Tyrone carried the ball away and started another attack that culminated with another McGinn shot from distance.

The Spurs recovery seemed to fizzle as Son, Alli and all the Spurs midfield players were unable to create anything due to their lack of speed and imagination.  Spurs were also having to give up freekicks to prevent even more shots than the Villans were already firing.  When Tanganga desperately clattered Grealish as he received a pass, the kick was in a tempting location.  Targett was able to pick out an open Konsa at the end of the line and talented defender missed a golden opportunity and his body language showed his disappointment.

The concern was short-lived as Spurs made a hash out of working the ball out from the goal kick.  When Reguilón found nobody available he attempted to dribble past Traoré.  When that failed, he panicked and cleared against Traoré and the ball rebounded to Dier.  Dier was being pressured by Watkins and McGinn and he passed back to Reguilón who tried again.

This time, his luck ran out as the ball skewed into the penalty area where Watkins was faster to respond.  He used his head to direct the ball beyond the leaden-footed Dier and easily slid by the England international.  As Lloris left his line to cut down the angle, the striker immediately struck the bouncing, spinning ball over the goalie’s outstretched leg and into the net. Manager Smith was ecstatic as were Watkins and Grealish.  Tottenham Hotspur 1, Aston Villa 2, in the 39th minute.

As if things were not bad enough, going behind after opening the scoring at home, they got significantly worse in the 42nd minute.  When an increasingly frustrated Hojbjerg lost the ball to the quicker feet of Grealish, he responded rashly and got himself a yellow card.  Spurs’ enforcer had suddenly been defanged.  Another clumsy tackle and he would be making the lonely walk to the dressing room.  Spurs, who were playing poorly, just lost their hustler-in-chief, and probably any chance to win.  In fact, Watkins almost scored again, in first half injury time, so porous was the defense they faced.

Spurs came out in the second half and, initially, made a game of it.  A nice move down the inside-left channel created an excellent opening for another Bergwijn goal but Martinez’s spectacular reflexes and a strong left hand parried the point-blank shot and, then, Mings deflected a follow-up strike by Dele Alli over the bar.  Bergwijn saw another good shot blocked confidently by the Villa keeper.  In the 76th minute, Harry Kane finally found a glimpse at goal, and he put everything into forcing the ball through Martinez at the near post, but the goalie got a good view and parried it.

Meanwhile Villa were finding more room to attack and to shoot but none could pierce the Spurs defense with Watkins coming the closest.  The insertion of Gareth Bale added to the excitement for the fans but he was not the one who came close to scoring.  In fact, it was Carney Chukwuemeka, Villa’s 17-year-old phenom on as a substitute who calmly stroked the ball toward Lloris’s right-hand post, out of his reach, and an inch or two from rebounding into the net.  Instead, it came back into play as injury-time came to an end.

Appropriate to the occasion was that Harry Kane walked the perimeter of the field as if to say, “So long, it’s been good to know you!”

An excellent win for the Villa and a sad affair for their hosts.

Tottenham Hotspur: (4-2-3-1): Hugo Lloris, Japhet Tanganga, Toby Alderweireld, Eric Dier, Sergio Reguilón, Harry Winks, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Steven Bergwijn, Deli Alli, Son Heung-min, Harry Kane

SUBS: Gareth Bale (s, 72’), Joe Hart, Giovani Lo Celso, Matt Doherty (s, 83’), Davinson-Sanchez, Erik Lamela, Tanguy Ndombele (s, 74’), Lucas Moura, Serge Aurier

ASTON VILLA (4-2-3-1): Emiliano Martinez; Ezri Konsa, Kortney Hause, Tyrone Mings, Matt Targett; John McGinn, Marvelous Nakamba, Bertrand Traoré, Anwar El Ghazi, Grealish and Ollie Watkins

SUBS: Steer, Elmohamady, Douglas Luiz (s, 73’), Jacob Ramsey (s, 65’), Wesley Moraes, Philogene-Bidace (s, 90’), Carney Chukwuemeka (s, 89’), Ross Barkley

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