Aston Villa (2), Man U (2) – Coutinho scores as Villa outplay Man. U.

Smarting at losing their FA Cup tie to Man. U. at Old Trafford earlier in the week, our Villans were suddenly buoyed by two top-drawer acquisitions, Phillippe Coutinho and Lucas Digne.  That both could be available for our Premier League fixture against those same Red Devils meant instant payback was in the cards, something that would also remove the bogey Villa has carried since 1995 (the last time Aston Villa beat Man. U. in the league at Villa Park).

No wonder Villa fans in Brum and around the world were abuzz for Saturday’s late game.  The game did not disappoint, nor did the aforementioned players. 

From the kick-off however, it was the three players who were missing due to their yellow card accumulations that appeared to be the most significant by their absence.  Without McGinn, Villa lacked the self-confidence he embodies and were nervous in possession. The high press that their opponents came out with was also a factor.  Certainly, the inclusion of Telles and Elanga (for Shaw and McTominay) supported that strategy and it led to the first goal.

While Digne was in Villa’s starting eleven, Mings appeared to not want to put too much pressure on someone he had yet to play with and was similarly nervous about passing to Sanson who had only started once before this season.  With Ings well covered by Varane, the other options were predictable and were quickly closed down.  Our desperate defenders dithered and then had to give up back-to-back corners as early as the first two minutes, corners they somehow survived.

Four minutes in, Sanson showed his anxiety as he attempted to steal back the ball from Telles as the Brazilian wingback raced away from him towards the penalty area.  The Frenchman compounded his error by contacting the player before the ball.  Telles went down and the referee whistled, freekick.

From the angle and distance (wide and over 25 yards), it was not a direct shot threat and Fernandes prepared to take the kick as just about everyone else jostled at the edge of the area to receive.  That Telles stood alongside Fernandes as a designated decoy was nothing unusual.  At the whistle however, Telles added an extra element to his part by running over the ball and giving the lightest of touches to make the ball “live”.  Most fans would have seen this embellishment to the occasional corner kick, but to do so with a freekick is unusual.  Certainly, getting 5 yards or more closer would have made Fernandes’s shot more difficult to save, especially as this training ground play also featured Cavani running across the line of the shot.

Remarkably, it worked to perfection even with Fernandes failing to generate much power and shooting straight into Martinez’s midriff!  For reasons we may never know, our goalie lost concentration and allowed the ball to slip through his grasp, between his legs, and over the line.  Emi waved hopefully towards officials for an offside call on Cavani only to see that the Colombian had been played onside by our captain, Tyrone Mings.  Another early howler by our otherwise brilliant goalie and we were down in the 6th minute, Aston Villa 0, Man U 1.

Suddenly, the presence of Coutinho on the bench became a preoccupation.  When would Gerrard bring him on, and could our claret and blues hold the rampaging white shirts at bay for that long?

Villa were even more rattled after the goal than before and were unable to get into the game.  The visitors seemed certain to add to their lead.  First, Elanga rose to meet a Fred cross over the back of Matty Cash with Martinez scrambling to his right and he should have done better than heading into the side netting.

Then Telles put in a dangerous cross from the left that Cavani almost got to in the 6-yard box with Digne all over him, but that left Greenwood unmarked, and he set to blast the ball into the net with his right foot.  Martinez somehow got off his line fast enough that he was within a yard of the winger and, spreadeagled, he blocked the shot away for a corner.  A brilliant save, one that kept Villa in the game.

That was in the 18th minute and ten minutes later, Man. U had another pair of excellent chances.  First, Digne scythed down Dalot when he was about to cut into the penalty area and line-up a shot.  It turned into a freekick and an opportunity for Telles to blast a shot from the same place.  Martinez was set and he parried it clear only for Greenwood to control the rebound, avoid a tackle, and aim for Emi’s left post.  Fortunately, it was just the wrong side with our goalie fully stretched.

Man. U wasn’t done, and Martinez had to parry another Greenwood shot out.  This time it was from at a tight angle.  Then he easily gathered in a weak header by Elanga.

As Man. U’s attacks started to ease off, Villa found their way into the game.   An easy shot by Watkins was followed by our first corner in the 35th minute.  With no McGinn to whip it with his left-foot, Digne took over and supplied exactly what Buendia was looking for.  Last year’s Championship League Player of the Year raced to the cross from the penalty spot and met the ball unimpeded just outside the 6-yard box.

Not for the first time, the 5’ 8” Argentinian was overlooked as an aerial threat from a corner.  Against Leicester, it was his header that Konsa deflected in for Villa’s equalizer.  This time he went for power and the ball was heading over de Gea but for the Spanish international’s phenomenal reflexes that saw him push the ball over the bar with Buendia looking stunned that he had not scored.  Still, the effort was a reminder that our Villa team has lots of goal scorers in their line-up.

Our Villans stayed in the ascendancy and came close again to scoring when, in the 43rd minute, a Cash cross was just too high for our strikers but perfect for Digne racing in from the wing.  He blasted the bouncing ball with the inside of his left foot as de Gea scrambled across his line to make another fine save, this one with his knees.

The only other threat from Man. U in the half came when a visibly injured Konsa was unable to respond to a pass down the left wing but managed to hobble into the penalty area and be there to clear before he collapsed.  An ugly tackle, from behind, by Elanga had left our stellar center back with a hip injury.

The questions for the second half were obvious.  Will Konsa return or will Hause have to replace him?  Will Villa start the second half like they finished the first or will they slip back to their nervous opening?  As for Coutinho, when will he appear and what impact will he have?

The Gerrard talk seemed to work.  After a first half in which Man. U. dominated possession (55% to 45%), our Villans more than flipped those numbers over the first ten minutes of the second half.  Their pace and possession were put to good effect with Ramsey executing a give and go with Sanson as he knifed into the penalty area from the left and almost caught out de Gea pulling his shot to the near post.  The Spanish international was alert, dropped down fast, and gathered.

Then Digne broke through Dalot on the left twice.  The first time, he teed up a pass for Buendia at the edge of the area, but our industrious playmaker could not get much purchase on it and de Gea gathered easily.  Next time, our increasingly influential new wingback lashed the ball into the side-netting, also trying to catch de Gea at the near post.

Soon after, our Villans should have had a freekick on the edge of the area, but the referee waved it off.  It was a case of 20-year-old Ramsey lacking experience in how to respond to being fouled.  The video replay showed that there was no question he was tripped as he cut between Fred and Matic.  The problem was that he immediately turned and looked at the referee for a decision.

Referees do not want to appear to be responding to the “victim’s claim” and, thus, are unlikely to call that.  Ramsey needs to go down and, with the appropriate amount of body-language annoyance, avoid eye-contact, letting other players plead the case.  Fortunately, Jacob got the last word in this game.

In the short term, though, Man. U. rubbed salt into the wound.  Five minutes after missing out on a freekick in a dangerous area, Sanson’s attempt to pass back to Mings was short.  Mings held his ground so that other Villa players could respond to provide support.  That did not occur soon enough as Fred got off a quick pass to Fernandes who had a step on Mings and Hause.  The Portuguese international settled the ball with his left foot and his second touch was a stunning shot that went in off the underside of the crossbar with Martinez not even set.  Aston Villa 0, Man U 2 In the 67th minute.

Villa fans were stunned!  Man. U were being outplayed and Coutinho was warming up to come on.  The question of why Gerrard did not get him on before the goal seemed to hang in the air.  The Brazilian came on for Sanson, who did not appreciate that it appeared that he was being punished for his mistake, and Coutinho’s first action did not provide fans much comfort.

After Digne earned a corner, he was about to take the kick when the other “new kid on the block” came over and pulled rank.  Coutinho’s effort was woeful and Fernandes, as the closest defender, hoofed the ball clear.  Two minutes later, Phillippe almost redeemed himself.  A freekick that was 35 yards out, became a well-worked set-piece wide to Cash who sent it straight into the mixer.  Coutinho was ready to pounce on the loose ball forcing Matic to poke it back toward his own goal.  De Gea was alert and kicked it clear,

Then a move by Cash and Ramsey down the right led to a very tasty cross that Watkins should have been heading at goal, but our striker got it all wrong and it went well wide to the left.  He might have lost his place for that weak effort, but Gerrard pulled Ings instead to let Chukwuemeka get 15 minutes of action.

That turned out to be a very smart move.  The 18-year-old Academy star immediately combined with Coutinho on the left and the Brazilian dribbled into the penalty area where he slipped the ball inside to Ramsey.  Despite markers close by, Jacob was able to control with his right foot and lash the ball with his left into the open top corner of net.  De Gea made a valiant effort but, from 8 yards, the ball was in the net before he could even get close. Aston Villa 1, Man U 2 in the 77th minute.

Rather than celebrate his first goal at Villa Park, the 20-year-old raced back to the halfway line.  There was more work to do!  It did not take long to get the second.

Emi Buendia who had toiled tirelessly and effectively, made one of his precision passes down the inside-left channel for Ramsey to run onto, look up and see what he had available, then immediately cross a slide rule pass inches beyond the sliding Varane and a couple of yards beyond de Gea on his line.

Much to the delight of the Holte End fans and, especially the Brazilian contingent whose flags draped the wall, Coutinho broke through and, as the ball reached him, paused for an instant for de Gea to dive before lifting his shot over the goalie’s outstretched arms into back of net.  Next, he had to dive over the prone keeper and avoid the post just to his right.  Sure, it was his first goal in Villa colors but he, also, saw this as unfinished business and he grabbed the ball out of the net and raced back for the kickoff. Aston Villa 2, Man U 2 in the 81st minute.

Ironically, the best chance for Villa to take all three points came with the same group of players, but that was their undoing.  In the 88th minute, Digne again broke down the left, found Buendia just outside the area in the inside right channel, and the Argentinian, in turn, teed the ball up for Ramsey, or was it Coutinho.  Each player thought it was for them and they got in each other’s way.  Lucky for de Gea as either could have ruined his afternoon.

Still, for the second meeting in a row, our Villans did not get the result they deserved.  Other than the first 30 minutes they dominated the game.  With 55% of possession, more passes (540 vs 451), better accuracy (84% vs 81%), 9 shots on goal versus Man. U’s 6, this is a team being built in Gerrard’s image that can go as far as the gaffer went.

Man U, with fading stars (Ronaldo, Cavani, Pogba, Varane, and Mata) and lots of young talent (Sancho, Greenwood, Rashford, Lingard) has no plan for the transformation, and not the ownership, executive management, and sideline leadership to come up with a plan.

We may not make it to the top six this year, but wouldn’t it be great to, at least, finish ahead of the Red Devils?

Aston Villa: Martínez; Cash, Konsa (Hause, 45’), Mings, Digne; Douglas Luiz, Sanson (Coutinho, 68’); Ramsey; Watkins, Ings (Chukwuemeka, 76’)

Subs (not used): Steer, Matt Targett, Kaine Kesler-Hayden, Ashley Young, Philogene-Bidace, Archer, Iroegbunam,

Manchester United: de Gea, Dalot, Lindelöf, Varane, Telles, Matic, Fred, Fernandes (van de Beek, 89’), Greenwood (Lingard, 89’), Elanga (Sancho, 78’), Cavani

Subs (not used): Heaton, Henderson, Maguire, Juan Mata, Jones

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