Aston Villa (2), Leicester City (1) – Villa Overhaul a Talented Leicester City

If the Villa vs Leicester fixture had followed their Crystal Palace away win, and not the Manchester City home loss, the atmosphere would have been very different late Sunday afternoon at Villa Park.

As it was, such as the impact of Steven Gerrard has been, there did not seem to be any kind of foreboding, certainly not in the players’ demeanor or play. Such was the mindset under Dean Smith, that there would have been.  There would have been the nagging sense that the team had left at least a point behind, that they did not have to.  Such is the load that a manager has to endure.

Thanks to Gerrard’s aura, so far, the loss of the impressive Matt Targett due to his knock against City, Young’s substitution, the insertion of Jacob Ramsey (a left footer) on the right of Watkins, and the recollection of how this fixture last season was the first after Grealish’s injury and how they comfortably beat us with Harvey Barnes and James Maddison goals, while our scorer (Bertrand Traore has yet to play this season) were not an issue.

Instead, the suddenly optimistic Villa faithful were feeling that we were on the rise while the Foxes were carrying a lot of injuries and years (Schmeichel is 35, Vardy is 34, and Evans is 33) and are on their way down.

I, for one, was pleased to see that Gerrard found room for Nakamba, Luiz, McGinn, and Ramsey on the field at the same time.  Collectively, they are as good as any midfield grouping in the Premier, with complementary attributes.  Nakamba for stopping/tackling, Luiz for his Brazilian skillset (both defensive as well as offensive), McGinn for the fire in his belly and audaciousness, and Ramsey for his speed and ball-carrying.

While both sides started quickly, they were equally sloppy.  It was Villa who looked more competent in getting bodies in the way, with Mings leading by example.

It was noticeable in the way each team handled their own errors.  When Young carelessly gifted the ball to Lookman, the rest of the defense covered, and Martinez comfortably gathered Daka’s shot.  Similarly, when the Zambian international nipped in front of Mings to exploit his sloppy chest control, Villa’s captain calmly recovered and forced Vardy’s temporary replacement to take a rushed shot from a bad angle that Martinez easily covered.

In contrast, Schmeichel’s attempt to punch clear Villa’s first corner of the game, by Luiz, was a sign of things to come.  The Danish international totally misjudge the wicked spin and the ball bounced in front of him.  Fortunately for the Foxes, a Leicester defender was there to clear.

Consequently, when Leicester did find themselves in the lead in the 14th minute there was none of the handwringing that occurred in the Southampton game.  Credit goes to Daka for his ability to withstand strong tackles by Nakamba and Cash and find Barnes coming in from the left.  Konsa, with no protection blocked his path and Barnes making the most of the half-chance stroked the ball between Konsa’s legs and just inside Martinez’s far post. It was an exquisite finish that left our goalie no chance.  Aston Villa 0, Leicester 1.

In fact, it was only a minute later that the visitors conceded a freekick on Villa’s left that gave Luiz the perfect opportunity to, once again, challenge a suspect defense with a set-piece.  What was apparent was that Ndidi was assigned to cover Ezri Konsa at the back of line and, Matty Cash, behind Konsa was totally unmarked.

While Johnny Evans was able to beat Mings to the ball, his effort was so wayward that it had the effect that Mings would have wanted to achieve.  Cash was alone at the far post waiting for the coveted second ball.  A savvy as well as talented fullback (Southgate was watching, no doubt regretting the players decision to select Poland to play for), Cash chose a better option than trying to get enough power on a looping cross to threaten Schmeichel with a header.

Instead, he picked out an open Buendia, near the penalty spot, for Villa’s Argentinian forward, to attack and get enough power and direction, bouncing a header into the ground, and just inside the post.  Goal!  Oh no, Villa fans held their breath because Ezri Konsa had extended his right foot and got a toe on the ball as it was heading into goal.  Was he offside, thus nullifying the goal?  Not only did VAR confirm the goal (Daka had dawdled at the other post and played Konsa onside), but it suggested that without that touch by the defender, the ball may have rebounded off the post. Aston Villa 1, Leicester 1.  It was Konsa’s goal and our Villans were back in the game in the 17th minute.

Leicester responded well and Dewsbury-Hall (filling in for Youri Tielemans) managed to get a head on a Barnes cross from the left but was facing away from the goal and could not redirect effectively. The effort went well wide. 

Villa’s response was more effective. Luiz, took a quick freekick from Nakamba, cut in from the left and found Ramsey in the center of Leicester’s half with plenty of room to move forward.  The youngster is remarkably quick and fluid, and he attracted three defenders as he reached the Fox’s penalty area, before laying a Grealish-like pass (accurate and perfectly weighted) to the overlapping Cash on his right.

Only 12 feet from goal, Cash hit the ball hard towards the far corner just ahead of Thomas’s slide, but the experienced Schmeichel had his angles right, extended his right foot to block and sent it out for a corner.  It was this attack that demonstrated the type of “quick hit” offense that Gerrard favors.  By keeping his front three “tight”, the team is more likely to create scoring opportunities, especially when he has fast fullbacks who can operate as wingers. 

That was in the 27th minute and Villa looked the most likely to score, but two minutes later they were almost scored on.  Again, Cash was a key player.  This came about because of Ndidi’s ability to strip Buendia of the ball in midfield.  The Nigerian international immediately fed Madison who found Lookman outside.

With Evans following the play, the Foxes had a momentary numerical advantage that saw the ball fall to Evans, in the crease, with his back to the Villa goal.  In front of him was Madison who was facing the right way.  If not for Cash, the ball would have been in the back of the net but Matty had inserted himself in the 6-yard box in front of the goal.  It was bang-bang, the Madison shot and the Cash block.

Soon after Maddison got another half chance, but Martinez made the good attempt look easy.  Still, this was the best period for the visitors who kept pressing and maintained possession.  As halftime approached, our Villans seized the initiative and the Foxes seemed to lack the energy, or the will, to match. Buendia, this time, showed tenacity beating opponents for possession just inside the Leicester half on the left and squeezed a pass to Nakamba who was immediately challenged by Maddison.  With the Zimbabwean gaining control, Maddison gave into temptation and pulled the aptly named Marvelous to the ground, not for the first time (Leicester committed 25 fouls to Villa’s 8).

With most players taking their time to organized for a set-piece variation, Luiz improvised again slipping a short pass to John McGinn who, initially, thought he might have an opportunity for one of his wonder strikes.  When that option disappeared, McGinn found Buendia on the left wing.  He also ran out of room and slipped the ball back to Luiz to scoop another high cross to the far post.

Again, Cash was there and although he had Thomas challenging, the great pickup from Nottingham Forest in September of 2020 was able to get a header across the face of the goal that forced Schmeichel down to his right to get a hand to.  What he could not do was gather it and he was lying prone with a hand on top of the ball when Ramsey blasted it into the back of the net.  Other than Schmeichel, nobody was appealing the referee’s confirmation that it was a goal until the VAR official intervened.

Eventually, after another field-side review, the referee, Michael Oliver, reversed his decision and awarded Leicester a freekick for kicking a ball that the goalie had control of.  Villa fans were livid, and they had another 15 minutes, the halftime break, to get even madder.

Gerrard managed to convert this fury into a positive force, and it was a more aggressive and determined Villa that returned to the field for the second half.  Still, all Gerrard’s efforts might have gone naught if not for Nakamba.  When Mings spent too much time passing out from defense, Daka blocked the ball and passed it to Lookman who was, momentarily, one on one with Martinez.

Out of nowhere Nakamba sprinted back and slid into the Leicester winger’s path as he was shooting and managed to block the shot back onto Lookman and out for a goal kick, saving the Villa captain any more embarrassment from his sloppy play.

The error forgotten, Villa continued to take the play to Leicester with Buendia buzzing around and making a nuisance of himself and Luiz being increasingly influential.  When Evans clattered Watkins in the 53rd minute at the halfway line, it was Luiz who took control of the freekick.  Instead of waiting for the big boys to come up for a set-piece, he quickly fed Watkins in space for our striker to run at the defense.  A smooth give and go with Ramsey at the edge of the area, left Ollie one on one with the fullback Thomas at the penalty spot. 

Watkins’ snap shot from the penalty spot area would likely have beaten Schmeichel if not for Thomas’s block.  However, the corner created turned out to be just as good.  McGinn whipped in a delicious cross from the right to Mings at the far post to compete with Soyuncu and Thomas.  The tussling meant that none of them could focus on the ball and that left Konsa, a step away with a free header to aim just inside the near post, powerful enough to handcuff the goalie.  Villa Park erupted as if the Gods had corrected the referee’s error. Aston Villa 2, Leicester 1 in the 54th minute.

With Villa rampant, Watkins out-tussled Evans and came away with possession and put the ball in the back of the net, but he had already been penalized for the foul.  Then from an excellent cross from Ashley Young, Cash found himself with the ball at the far post, but his shot was blocked.  In between, Maddison hit a fine shot but it was a little wide of Martinez’s right post.  Then, it was Watkins turn again as he was fed a beautiful pass that he looked sure to score from but was prevented by Schmeichel with an excellent save, sliding out to block the shot.

Even more impressive was the way Buendia, Watkins, and McGinn combined to put an opportunity for Ramsey on a silver platter only for the 20-year-old to take his eye of the ball and scoop the shot high over the bar in the 70th minute.  That might have been an important miss if not for the superb save by Martinez from a reflex header by Harvey Barnes that was heading just under the crossbar in the 74th minute.

The time came for both managers to bring on their substitutes. Morgan Sanson was energetic, creative and looked like he belonged in the starting line-up during his fifteen minutes on the field, while Chukwuemeka was self-assured and effectively eradicated Leicester’s last attack when he intercepted Maddison’s quick pass from a freekick and forced the England international to foul him as the 18-year-old comfortably held him at bay in injury time.

Game over, the Villa prevailed, 2-1.

Aston Villa: Martinez, Cash, Young, Mings, Konsa, Douglas Luiz (Sanson 77′), Nakamba, McGinn, Watkins, Jacob Ramsey (Tuanzebe 84′), Buendía (Carney Chukwuemeka 78′)

Subs: Steer, Tuanzebe, Davis, Sanson, Hause, Philogene-Bidace, El Ghazi, Carney Chukwuemeka, Iroegbunam

Leicester: Schmeichel, Evans, Söyüncü, Castagne, Thomas, Dewsbury-Hall (Iheanacho 86′), Lookman (Vardy 65′), Barnes, Ndidi, Maddison, Daka (Pérez 78′)

Subs: Choudhury, Iheanacho, Ward, Albrighton, Soumaré, Vestergaard, Pérez, Vardy, Daley-Campbell

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