Aston Villa (1), Sheffield United (1) – Our Premier League home win streak fizzles out at 15, but we tie just in time

Friday, Dec 22nd, 20.00 – Villa Park

Referee: Anthony Taylor

Villa fans will have to accept that all good things must come to an end.  At the same time, they will know that our Villans, from management to the team on the field are a resourceful bunch and will not lose focus on the overall strategy to reach for the top.  In the short-run (this season) that will be to win some silverware and the long-run is to play in the UEFA Champions League.

As for the game itself, Sheffield United’s returning manager, Chris Wilder, called a game plan for his Blades that was perfect for the occasion.  With our Villans looking to please the crowd with a rousing victory, his team “parked the bus”.  That should not have been a problem for our team except that we were missing some important players, most importantly Torres, Tielemans, and Kamara. 

They were conspicuous by their absence.  Torres is our leader in terms of possession, passing, and composure.  He would have found cracks in their armor, switched attacking by hitting 40-yard passes to the right wing, and immediately passing when either Watkins, Diaby, or Bailey was breaking.  Instead, Torres-lite, otherwise known as Lenglet, hesitated then passed back to Konsa repeatedly.

As for Tielemans, he is always moving and making himself available and, he also, finds the cracks or executes the give-and-goes with our talented forwards that have led to Watkins and Bailey being Premier League leaders in goals and assists.

Kamara, is our vacuum cleaner in midfield, sweeping up every deflection and taking that distraction from his teammates.  That was perhaps the reason that McGinn, Luiz, and Digne were less effective going forward on Friday.  They had to their own dirty-work and could not focus on breaking down the opposition.

To what extent Ramsey’s and Diaby’s failure to play to their potential was a consequence of the creative deficiencies of others is hard to tell.  Regardless, Emery will find ways to get more out of the pair going forward.

The problems were evident in Friday’s game by halftime.  Our Villans had managed exactly one shot on target and that came in the 16th minute when Bailey mesmerized Blades’ defenders, allowing Diaby to find an opening and force a very good save by Foderingham, low to his right.

After that, Villa’s most dangerous forays were from corners when McGinn, in quick succession, aimed in-swingers from the right to the far post only for Konsa to fail to get either header on-target.

What was also noticeable in the first half was that our Villans were dominating possession and United were resorting to unnecessarily heavy challenges.  For some reason, Referee Anthony Taylor chose to minimize their infractions.  With our Villans having close to 80% of possession, it makes no sense that the Blades were only given three (3) yellow cards for the whole game.

Then, it appeared that we had scored in the 61st minute.  Another in-swinging corner was not properly cleared as Ramsey intercepted the ball in the penalty area.  Jacob immediately fed his buddy Ollie who stepped around a defender before rifling a pass across the 6-yard box for the waiting Bailey to smash the ball into the roof of the net.

Foderingham loudly claimed, justifiably, that Ramsey had held his arm during the corner preventing him from catching the ball.  Our Villans still felt aggrieved given that a defender had his arm around Ramsey at the same time and that, since the Blades had an adequate time to clear the ball and they did not do so, the incident was not in the same passage of play.  There was also the sense that the Blades had gotten away with lots already.

Anyway, the overturning of a fine finish was a demoralizing moment for players and fans. When an attempt by Bailey to find Foderingham’s top right corner went high and wide, our brilliant Jamaican’s expression showed his frustration.

Then, Emery brought on Durán for Diaby and Moreno for Digne in the 74th minute while the Blades brought on McAtee for Slimane in the 76th minute.  The immediate impact favored the visitors.  First, after Duran lost possession, Hamer carried the ball into the Villa half and waited for Norwood to catch up with the play and the pass was inch perfect. Norwood’s shot was rifling towards Emi’s top-right hand corner, but Martinez read the shot perfectly and was waiting to grab the ball in mid-air imperiously.

A couple of minutes later, Emi was scrambling across his goal line to cover a deflection from an ill-advised attempt by Konsa to block another low and hard McAtee cross.  The ball went just wide saving Konsa blushes and our Villans a catastrophe.

Emery rolled the dice again bringing Zaniolo on for Bailey, but it was the Blades who put the ball in the net.  After an ugly skirmish between Durán and Robinson, a VAR check was made to see if our Colombian had intentionally elbowed the defender.  While it was judged to have been accidental, it appeared to have distracted our players. From the ensuing Blades attack, Hamer was allowed to break into our penalty area while Cameron Archer was left unmarked.  The on-target pass and even better finish put our Villans down.  Aston Villa 0, Sheffield United 1 in the 87th minute.  That Archer had been with the club from a youth and was only released this season was bittersweet.

As if replicating his success at Brentford, Alex Moreno was in the same spot to head the same kind of cross into the net right after, only for Foderingham to have anticipated and make an excellent save.  That was in the 89th minute and injury time was coming up.  Fortunately, 9 minutes was allotted and our Villans needed just about all of it. 

It took Ramsey to run at a tiring defense before passing to Luiz on his left.  Our Brazilian magician had saved his best to last.  He zipped a dangerous cross into the heart of the penalty area as if to say, “Go get me”.  It was Zaniolo who rose to the challenge using his height and size to overwhelm any defenders.  He beat Foderingham and buried the ball into the vacant net, Aston Villa 1, Sheffield United 1 in the 90 +7th minute.

Two minutes later the final whistle blew and so did our winning streak at home!  Players and fans were left with a feeling of tremendous disappointment.  We could have been in first place in the Premier League, if only for a day.

As it turned out, that goal by Zaniolo gained the same significance as the similar headed equaliser by Ollie Watkins against Bournemouth.  It will give us a positive slant going into Old Trafford on Boxing Day.

How come?  Well read my Pregame Assessment if you haven’t. 

Aston Villa: Martínez, Cash, Konsa, Lenglet, Digne (Moreno 74′), Bailey (Zaniolo 81′), McGinn, Douglas Luiz, Ramsey, Diaby (Durán 74′), Watkins

Unused Subs: Diego Carlos, Chambers, Dendoncker, Marschall, Iroegbunam, O’Reilly

Sheffield Utd: Foderingham, Baldock, Robinson, Trusty, Bogle, Vinicius Souza, Norwood, Larouci (Lowe 58′), Ben Slimane (McAtee 76′), Brooks (Hamer 58′), Archer (McBurnie 90′)

Unused Subs: Davies, Fleck, Traoré, Thomas, Osborn

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