Aston Villa vs Everton – Pre-game Assessment

Sunday, August 20, 2 pm – Venue: Villa Park
Referee: Anthony Taylor 

This week’s game against the Toffees has suddenly become a “must win” game for our Villans!  How did that happen?

This is not the opinion of a fringe element of Villa supporters who remember the woes of Villa teams of the past or Birmingham City and West Brom fans seeking schadenfreude from our misery.  Perfectly knowledgeable and unbiased soccer analysts are saying this.  Why?

Soccer is, among other things, a game of momentum and confidence.  With our team reeling from a drubbing at Newcastle (4-0) last October, they returned to Villa Park one week later with a new manager, Unai Emery, and a new attitude.  The result was a momentous dissection of Manchester United 3-1 with Ollie Watkins creating two excellent assists for the two clinical finishes by Leon Bailey and Jacob Ramsey.

That set the tone and Villa put together five wins and a draw out of the next seven games.  The team went from looking over its shoulder to what they could accomplish – and they did!

We started this season with an unbeaten summer schedule, including a 3-3 draw with that same Newcastle team who ended Steve Gerrard’s stewardship, but further enhanced by the additions of Isak and Tonali.  That “friendly” game was in Philadelphia.

We knew that last weekend’s opener would be a tough one, since the Magpies play at another level in front of their boisterous fans.  Even without the injured Jacob Ramsey, we probably would have matched the Geordies, but losing Emi Buendia to a season ending knee injury only three days prior to the season kickoff was a body blow that the addition of Moussa Diaby could only partly offset.

The result, a demoralising 5-1 embarrassment, sent shock waves through soccer’s cognoscenti.  This was a team that, under Emery, had conceded, in 27 games, only 26 goals, less than one per game.  Was last season the fluke?  Did the injury to Tyrone Mings in the game mean that we had a hole in our defense that could not be filled in time?

It was Sir Alec Ferguson, of all people, who gave us pause.  In a post-game interview, Manchester United’s maestro noted how well our boys had played and how we had, for most of the game, held our own.  Indeed, he was correct.  Back in April when we won against a very similar Newcastle team, we had the same number of shots (16), and those on target (6), only we scored 3 and conceded 0 on that occasion.  Clinical finishing on our part at St. James Park would have made all the difference.

Meanwhile, Everton awaits us at Villa Park in our season home-opener.  If the fixture in Newcastle seemed, in anticipation, a nightmarish affair, the prospect of an Everton visit is the opposite, as close to heaven as you will get.

That is not to say that Sean Dyche’s Toffees are a poor team.  There are no poor teams in this Premier League.  The three promoted teams are all coming off a season when they were winning most of their games and every other team, Everton included, has been strengthening their squads.  In fact, the combination of England’s goalie, Jordan Pickford, Michael Keane and Jim Tarkowski makes sure that Everton stay competitive in every game.  They beat Arsenal (1-0), Brentford (1-0), and Brighton (5-1, away) last season thanks to that defense.

Something that Unai Emery will know is that it was Newcastle’s 1-0 victory at home against Everton last October that set them on their way to a six-game winning streak catapulting them into the top four, a status they held for the rest of the season.

Emery knows that even a 1-0 win can be enough to stabilize a team that has all the elements to replicate Newcastle’s success.  As good as Pickford is, our Emi led Argentina to a World Cup.  While Mings was superb, Pau Torres has represented Spain and has shown to be an able, and younger (at 26) replacement with excellent passing skills.  The rest of the team: Konza, Cash, Digne, Luiz, McGinn, Kamara, Bailey, and Watkins all played in the game at Anfield Road last May when we held Liverpool to a draw and gained the point that put us ahead of Spurs and into the Europa League.

While we do not have Jacob Ramsey this weekend, we do have Moussa Diaby who scored a beautiful goal for us in his Premier League debut.  While it is unlikely that he will see action, new signing Nicolò Zaniolo could be on the bench.   The 24-year-old Italian midfielder already has 13 caps for his national team and could be a like-for-like replacement for Buendia with both players having had knee-injuries.  There is potential, and risk, in both but having two improves the team’s odds.

Result Prediction:

My sense is that that the Villa crowd will provide the necessary support and carry the team through the game for a low-scoring victory.  Torres will get a better welcome than he would have if he was selected over a fit Mings, while Konza will adapt to his new partnership.  It could be as dour as the home game against Crystal Palace in March when we won 1-0, though more likely to be Aston Villa 2, Everton 1 with Watkins and Diaby tallying.

Predicted Villa Line-Up:

In fact, it will not surprise me if Emery starts the same line-up as he started in Newcastle (with Torres for Mings). 

Martinez, Cash, Konsa, Torres, Digne, Bailey, Kamara, Luiz, McGinn, Diaby, Watkins

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