Aston Villa (3), Leeds (3) – Villa roller-coast their way to a draw

We should know better than to be surprised at the events that unfolded at Villa Park yesterday.  It was the same fixture last year that saw our mouth-watering 4-game winning streak left in tatters by a score of 3-0.  In that game, there was the sense that if we could only score one goal, others would follow.  Now we know.

Credit to Steven Gerrard for recognizing that Marcelo Bielsa, the Leeds manager, is in a class by himself for inspiring the best out of his players.  Still, even Gerrard must have been shocked to witness the performance of Daniel James filling in for the injured Bamford.

As we all found out, that was one of the many shocks that left Villa fans deflated, then excited, then frustrated, and, finally, exhausted.  In fact, the traveling Leeds fans might have found themselves with similar emotions, recognizing how close their team came to collecting an invaluable three away points.

So how did it all begin?  Quickly.  Right from the kickoff, it was obvious that the Villa line-up that had won at Everton and pulled back Man U two goal lead was only going to get better.

With Buendia and Coutinho pinching close to Ollie Watkins, Villa’s dangerous wingbacks (Cash and Digne) would have space to create mayhem down the wings or from the ensuing corners.

From the kickoff, Villa’s energy was high, and they pressed Leeds, in their all-blue away strip, everywhere on the pitch.  A ball out to Ayling was immediately close-down by our speedy Jacob Ramsey and the wingbacks attempted pass ricocheted to Llorente who drove a pass down the right wing only for Konsa to cushion it back to his captain, Tyrone Mings.

Mings looked up and arrowed a pass down that same wing and Watkins had two yards on Struijk as Llorente was just able to reach the ball and put it out of touch.  If the Spaniard had not reached it, Ollie would have been one-on-one with Leeds keeper, Meslier.  There were only 40 seconds on the clock.

From the throw-in, our Villans worked their way down the line and Coutinho showed his class by cheekily backheeling a pass down the line for Digne to overlap, carry to the goal line and hammer a low cross that was blocked for a Villa corner.

Luiz’s right-footed inswinger was met by Mings at the near post and Meslier managed to parry his header out for a corner with an element of luck.  A minute later Konsa forced an error by James and Buendia was the quickest to the loose ball and Villa were attacking again.

Leeds held, but they gave up possession again in midfield, and McGinn immediately arced a perfect strike for the flying Matt Cash to gather as he entered the Leeds penalty area.  The ball ran to our wingback’s right, but he had already eyed Watkins with a yard of space in front of the near post and he immediately flashed a cross within a yard of our striker, only for Ollie to have assumed that the pass was “not on” and was not ready to receive (this is a recurring problem that Watkins has and is, surely, being addressed in training).

Immediately after, Leeds lost their composure and Meslier gave up an unnecessary corner.  Meslier punched that corner clear and this time, when Villa pressed, Ayling was able to nutmeg Coutinho and carry the ball from close to his own goal to deep in the Villa half before finding Raphinha open on the wing.  Ramsey was forced to cede a corner from the Brazilian’s cross. 

It was headed well clear by Digne and Raphinha’s return cross was poor and Martinez easily gathered.  That was Leeds’ first corner and our goalie’s first involvement in the play.  It was the 8th minute.

Then, from nothing, Leeds scored.  A hopeful ball was hit in Rodrigo’s direction down the right wing.  Mings momentarily stole possession but had to sidestep Klich.  That was all Rodrigo needed to pinch the ball back and feed James just inside the box.  Konsa seemed to have the Welshman covered only for James to shoot between Ezri’s legs and just inside the far post leaving our goalie no chance to reach.  It was Leeds’ first shot of the game in the 9th minute.  Aston Villa 0, Leeds 1.

The Leeds’ fans erupted, partly out of surprise, as well as joy.  Villa looked stunned.  Maybe Bamford does that, but little Daniel James?  Now the visitors looked like a different team, composed and confident.  Cash was forced to concede a corner after a sharp Leeds build-up down the left.

Meanwhile, Villa lost their composure and a McGinn pass that could have found Watkins open and racing into the box was under-hit and Ayling intercepted.  Then Buendia, after creating an opening, was sloppy in passing to Coutinho and gave his “little hop’ signifying his annoyance at himself.  These errors allowed Leeds more possession and James tried to score from too narrow an angle when a pass to an open Klich could have put the visitors 2-0 up.

Leeds looking sharper, manufactured an excellent opportunity that Digne did brilliantly to defend.  A long cross-field pass from Klich found James with space behind Cash and wide of Konsa.  He carried the ball at Konsa who held at the penalty area not wanting the Welshman to get another shot on goal. 

James noticed that Rodrigo, the Brazilian-born Spanish international, was attacking the 6-yard box with pace, and whipped a perfect cross that was aimed right at his teammate’s noggin only for the speedy Digne, running stride for stride at his left, to launch himself and make contact with the ball first, while avoiding scoring an own goal by skewing the ball over the bar.  Great defense of the first order.  A second goal in the 18th minute would have been a reminder of what happened in this fixture last year and would have been a mountain to overcome.

A couple of minutes later we saw a hint of what was to come.  With Villa pinned in their own at their left touchline, Luiz slid a pass along the line to Coutinho with Koch and Ayling all over him.  A brilliant nutmeg between the two, and a swivel at speed, and Coutinho was on a break with the ball at his feet.  Ayling was so dazzled he ran over Coutinho, and the Villa had a freekick and the fans engaged.

Mings then took it upon himself to carry the ball though the Leeds’ high-press and hit an I defense splitting pass to Buendia who had cut inside his marker.  Unfortunately, Watkins mistook it as a pass to himself and the opportunity was lost, but only for a moment.  Buendia thrust himself back into the mix and forced a desperate tackle in the inside-right channel.

The freekick was high and wide of its target but Digne was able to recover and when Ramsey finally got possession, he banked it off a Leeds leg to create a corner.  Having run out of luck with in-swingers, Digne hit a high swirling out-swinger that Mings attacked with power.  It seemed destined to hit the inside of Meslier’s left post with the goalie rooted to the ground.  Instead, it went inches wide and generated a collective groan from the crowd.

There was more encouragement for the fans when Buendia was first to a Villa clearance on the right touchline but was immediately confronted by Koch and Dallas.  A quick spin and burst and he had left the two of them chasing his shadow.  Ollie immediately jumped on his horse and would have been clear on his way if only Buendia had put more mustard on the pass.  The fans still cheered for the effort shown.

The game was on knife’s edge with both teams showing commitment to go forward to create chances.  Another Buendia pass to Cash heading into the penalty area almost made it.  On the counterattack, Harrison resisted Luiz’s tackle and found James racing through the inside-left channel.    Just outside the area, the sudden striker dropped his shoulder and hit a thunderous right-footed shot that Martinez dived toward, but was not close, and the shot boomed over the bar.

Villa responded with the same high-tempo attacks and Coutinho almost had Watkins clear with a delicate flick.  Jacobs did better finding Digne only he mishit the cross. Villa pressed and Buendia found Cash open on the touchline and Matty zipped over a cross first time to Coutinho.  Somewhat like the Leeds goal, the defender (Llorente this time) thought he had blocked the way to the goal (and there was no gap between his legs). 

Our Brazilian magician could see that there was about six inches inside the far post available and he zipped a shot so quickly that Meslier’s dive was doomed to fail.  Villa fans exploded in excitement and relief.  Aston Villa 1, Leeds 1.  It was the 30th minute.

If Villa were expecting the goal to deflate Leeds, they were soon corrected.  Another good passing sequence down the right and James was set-up in a similar situation as he scored from.  Only this time Cash was tighter on the coverage and, not only blocked the shot, but had it rebound off the shooter for a goal kick.

Soon after, our Villans worked the ball down the right and back to McGinn who looked towards the semi-circle to see who wanted a pass.  Coutinho cut in from the left with Ayling almost pasted to his back.  The Brazilian slowed to force the fullback to have to almost stop then spun clockwise at speed leaving his marker a spectator.  A quick glance confirmed that our fastest Villan was breaking away from Klich and the pass was sent on its way, bisecting Struijk and Llorente,

Ramsey did not have to change his pace or direction.  The local boy cushioned the pass with the outside of his right foot as he entered the area, slowing it and letting it run to his left foot then, with Meslier advancing toward him, lashed the ball past the goalie’s planted left foot.  Klich was a step away but the whole move left no moment for the defender to react. Aston Villa 2, Leeds 1.  It was the 38th minute. Jacob had scored in two continuous home games – the first having been against Man U.

Taking a similar tack after our Villans had scored their first goal, the visitors brushed themselves off and set about eradicating our claret and blue lead.  Another Harrison corner was flashed over forcing Digne to put behind for a repeat corner from the right to no avail.  Then Leeds pressed high up on the right and found themselves over-committed when, thanks to Buendia, the ball broke to Coutinho.  As the new fan favorite carried the ball forward, the Leeds defenders scrambled back watching Watkins breaking to the left as Coutinho cut into the middle.

With Struijk, Llorente, and Koch, they had the numbers if not the speed to match Villa’s duo and were all pulled to the left side of the field.  What they did not notice was that Ramsey had recognized an opening and he headed towards the right from ten yards behind.  He was in a different gear and Coutinho saw him out of the corner of his eye and laid a perfect pass for the Great Barr boy to run onto unimpeded.

As Ramsey gathered, without slowing, at the edge of area, Struijk made a desperate dash across the penalty area while Meslier advanced, crouched and poise to dive left or right.  What the goalie was not prepared for was the 20-year-old phenom to lift a side-footed blast over his left shoulder that was reminiscent of Fernandes goal in that same net a few weeks prior, only much better. Aston Villa 3, Leeds 1.  Ramsey had a brace at home going from no goals at Villa Park to three in the space of a game and a half.

The fans were delirious as the hometown favorite was shining alongside one of the world’s best talents.  It was euphoric for the players too, with the energy level oozing.

As Gerrard subsequently noted, it was not a time to throw caution to the wind, with three minutes of injury time still to go.  It was probably not the time for Konsa to carry the ball all the way to the Leeds penalty area and to beat the turf when a James nudge left him on the ground, but that’s what he did.

While Ezri was having a temper tantrum, James was racing down to the other end of field.  Not to worry, Villa handled the next Leeds challenge and Martinez slid the ball to Cash.  That was a time for Cash to find a way to kill the clock.  Instead he rifled a pass 40 yards to Ollie Watkins that Struijk brushed Ollie aside to gather, carry and then pass to the dangerous Harrison on the wing.

The winger passed inside to Koch, who found Klich who, in turn, picked out Rodrigo at the edge of the 6-yard box.  With Villa defenders somewhat static, Rodrigo zipped a cross through to James only for Luiz to get a foot on the ball.  Our other Brazilian who has found himself somewhat lost in the Coutinho limelight inadvertently deflected the ball back towards his own goal.

The ball was descending to Martinez’s back post with Mings, Buendia, and Leeds’ James waiting for it to come down.  Nobody would have bet on the shortest player getting his head there first, but he did.  Leeds had scored one of the uglier goals but, in first half injury time, it was gold for Leeds.  Aston Villa 3, Leeds 2. 

The visitors could go into their dressing room just a goal down, the momentum, and 45 minutes to, at least, tie the game.  It was cruel irony that Villa had rode such a goal against Everton in their previous game to win all three points.

This was a time for a Villa on-field leader to have settled the team, controlled possession and forced the opposition to throw caution to the wind to get back in the game.  Luiz has shown potential to do that in the past and so has McGinn.  Neither has done that recently and that is why Gerrard has been expressing interest in players such as Brighton’s Bissouma.

With both teams having good moments, Leeds took advantage of theirs forcing Mings to clear a header from a corner off the line not once, but twice.  Unfortunately, the second time the clearance was mishit to Llorente who lashed the gift into the back of the net.  Aston Villa 3, Leeds 3 in the 63rd minute.

Both teams appeared emotionally and physically exhausted and neither came close to scoring a winner.  Ezri Konsa’s rash foul in the 87th minute garnered him a second yellow card, and a red card that puts him out of Villa’s game against Newcastle.  That was not a way that he will want to be remembered for this game, but it will be.

Gerrard realizes that he has lots of work to do to develop this group of unbelievably talented soccer players into a well-oiled machine.

On to Newcastle on a stimulating, but ultimately sour, note.

Aston Villa: Martinez, Cash, Konsa, Digne, Mings, Ramsey (Chambers 89′), McGinn, Luiz, Coutinho (Young 78′), Buendía (Chukwuemeka 59′), Watkins.

Subs (not used): Targett, Iroegbunam, Olsen, Sanson, Kesler Hayden, Young

Leeds: Meslier, Dallas, Ayling, Struijk, Llorente, Klich (Forshaw 85′), Rodrigo, Raphinha, Harrison, Koch, James.

Subs (not used): Klaesson, Kenneh, McKinstry, Shackleton, Gelhardt, Bate, Hjelde, Roberts

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