Aston Villa (4), Nottingham Forest (2) – Our Villans get their mojo back at home

Saturday, February 24th, 15:00 – Villa Park

Referee: Sam Barrott

You might anticipate that our Villans, fourth in the Premier League, would see a home game against 16th place Nottingham Forest, losers of three of their last five games, as a gimme, especially after the confident way our Claret and Blue had taken three points from Fulham at Craven Cottage with the same eleven that were able to start on Saturday.  Yes, that is probably the first-time all-season Emery had named an unchanged team.

In fact, there was a nervous anticipation amongst the faithful, with the emphasis on the nervous.  This was an appropriate feeling given that our heroes had last won at home on December 30th and the winning goal arrived in injury time from a Douglas Luiz penalty and it was against 19th place Burnley.

That was a win, but not the most reassuring response following our failure to extend our 15-game winning streak against Sheffield United, the league’s absolute cellar-dweller.  We followed the win against Burnley with three home losses, one to Chelsea that knocked us out of the FA Cup and two Premier League games against chasing teams, Newcastle and Manchester United.

Bizarrely, we still managed to hold onto a spot in the top four thanks to our away form: two ties and three wins!  So, all we had to do was replicate our away form at home against Forest.  That should be easy, especially having Torres back in the line-up (he had also played in our win at Fulham).  His presence throughout our winning streak had proven to be a major contributor to the team’s success.

The biggest challenge, of course, was getting the first goal.  In our recent home drought, we had failed to score in the first half of any game, our earliest goal being in the 67th minute against Manchester United.  We had played all three games from behind.

Ollie Watkins’ goal in the 22nd minute at Fulham was about as long we were willing to wait before the trepidation would start.  Ollie, having scored two in that game was a good omen.  Ollie scores in bunches.

Sure enough, Ollie got our Villans on the score sheet in the first five minutes at the Holte-End! The roar that went up at Villa Park sent a ripple that could be felt wherever Villa fans were watching across the world.

The only thing better would be a couple of more goals to really settle the nerves.  Sure enough, our Villans did that and they went ahead (3-0) and, in the end, won comfortably.  Still, this game had lots of excitement and drama.

So, exactly what happened?  As noted, our Villans started the same line-up as faced Fulham.  The center backs were Lenglet and Torres, given the unavailability of Konsa and Carlos (both due to recent short-term injuries), and the long-term injury of Mings.  Tielemans again replaced Kamara as he had fit in well with Luiz and McGinn at Craven Cottage, and he returned to his midfield responsibilities.

The only change for Forest, was the insertion of Niakhaté at left-back, possibly due to his long-throw capability. 

From the kick-off, both teams appeared comfortable in possession and when Villa pressed high up the field, Forest neatly passed out from the back before sending passes designed to find Elanga and Hudson-Odoi down the wings and Awoniyi up the middle.  Lenglet and Cash both backed up well, and were able to find teammates with their defensive headers.  Torres did even better, trapping a through ball and initiating a Villa attack.

McGinn in the inside-right position received one of these passes and shaped to swing a cross over to Alex Moreno but, with Forest anticipating that, he pivoted 180 degrees and with the ball on his right foot he was able to send a perfect pass to Bailey who had already broken beyond Niakhaté.

The pass was inside the full-back and that forced centerback Murillo to challenge our in-form winger.  Somehow, Leon nutmegged the young Brazilian defender and carried goalward, inline with the 6-yard box. Felipe, the more-seasoned Brazilian RCB had two concerns: both Bailey and Ollie Watkins.

The former Atletico Madrid star defender positioned himself just inside the 6-yard box intent on blocking Leon’s access to the far corner beyond the goalie and also access to Watkins who was easing himself into a place in front of the middle of the net.  The only other defender in a position to do something was Neco Williams. The Welsh right-back recognised that the most logical pass for Bailey was a pull-back to our Jacob Ramsey, and he prepared for that.

Instead, Leon did something that showed impressive composure and skill, he found the space between Felipe’s two pins and nutmegged an exquisite pass to Ollie. Our striker slid the ball into the gaping goal.  Aston Villa 1, Nottingham Forest 0 at exactly 3:31. Fans had barely taken their seats!

The sheer audacity of the goal appeared to unsettle the visitors.  When a headed clearance of a long throw landed at Hudson-Odoi’s feet just inside our box soon after, the former Chelsea Academy graduate tried a first-time shot that went well over the bar.

In contrast, our Villans again worked their way through the heart of the Forest midfield and almost added to their lead.  Lenglet, did a very good impression of Torres, carrying the ball from deep in his own half before finding Jacob Ramsey in a pocket of space in the inside-left channel.  Jacob quickly fed Alex Moreno in acres of space on the left wing.

Moreno zipped a return pass that Ramsey deflected towards Watkins who instinctively headed into the channel that Ramsey was running into.  By the time Jacob reached the ball, he was just outside the Forest 6-yard box on the left and he, again, immediately returned the pass to Watkins, now in front of the 6-yard box, in front of the goal.

Ollie’s first instinct is always to shoot, and he did so.  The shot was somewhat “scuffed” but it was heading towards the far post with Sels scrambling.  Fortunately for the goalie and Forest, Niakhaté was close enough to get a foot in the way and deflect it over the bar.  That was in the 9th minute, and our Villans had come close to adding a second goal.

Forest did have an opportunity in the 15th minute when a tackle by Ramsey was judged by the new referee, Sam Barrott, to be too forceful.  The location of the infringement, just outside the corner of the box on Villa’s left, was perfect for Gibbs-White to whip a dangerous cross to the front of the 6-yard box.  The talented attacking midfielder did just that and Martinez was rooted to his line but Lenglet showed his ever-increasing importance to our Villans’ defense by getting his head to the ball and, somehow, conjuring up a clearance back over his head, away from goal.  By the time the ball reached the ground, Hudson-Odoi was ready to lash a shot at our Villans’ goal.  We will never know where that shot would have gone because our remarkable captain, John McGinn, had his foot in the way to block.

The ricochet came to Danilo, Forest’s converted Brazilian right back to midfielder, who failed to bring the ball under control, enabling our Villans’ Brazilian, Douglas Luiz, to seize the opportunity to break with McGinn and Bailey.  Murillo sensed the danger and hauled down his fellow countryman while he could so at the expense of a yellow card, a heavy handicap for a last-line defender to carry from the 15th minute mark.

Then Torres carried the ball from deep in his own half, with no Forest player challenging him until he was well inside the visitors’ half.  When, finally, a Forest player challenged, Torres stroked a precise pass to Watkins who had come to make himself available.  Ollie one-touched the ball to Ramsey who rotated anti-clockwise to avoid Danilo before laying off to Tielemans in the inside-right channel.  The Belgian international immediately found Bailey heading towards penalty area.  Niakhaté, aware of the risk that Leon’s left-foot represented, gave him room outside.  Bailey exploited the opportunity and blasted a shot with his right-foot from 15-yards.  Nels, dropped to the turf, and closed his legs just in-time.  The ball bounced out for a corner.

The keeper did better with the corner coming out to gather confidently.  Soon after, Torres was uncharacteristically caught in possession and the visitors almost had a break but, reminiscent of Manchester City, there was an immediate cluster of Claret and Blue shirts and possession was back where was it was supposed to be.

Within a few minutes Forest had to resort to desperate measures to contain our talented squad.  First, Murillo rolled over Ollie Watkins and put a knee into his back while Danillo rugby-tackled McGinn who was about to break.  With Watkins waiting for the signal to rejoin the play after the free kick, Tielemans found himself with a sight of goal and decided to go for it.  Sels was forced to punch clear at the near post. 

That was in the 25th minute and our Villans continued to play with composure from the back intent on making decisive defense-opening passes.  It paid off when Ramsey broke down a Forest attack by nicking the ball off a Forest forward for a goal kick.  That saw Martinez feeding Luiz who relayed to Lenglet, who found Watkins coming back, who laid-off to Tielemans who found Torres who passed out to Moreno at the halfway line on the left. 

Moreno then carried the ball laterally towards the center of the field before handing off to McGinn who decided to engage Cash to his right.  Cash found Bailey on the right wing and ran into space ahead of his teammate.  Leon caressed a perfect pass for the Polish international, a former winger for the visitors, and Cash carried wide of Murillo and pulled back for Ramsey who had made himself available at the near post.

With Felipe blocking his view of the goal and Domínguez closing in, our hometown hero was aware that Luiz was heading to the penalty spot.  With Torres-like composure, Jacob turned with the ball and laid a perfect pass for Douglas to sweep a powerful shot to the vacant left-side of the net.  Neco Williams and Sels made futile gestures in that direction, but the ball hit the back of the net before they were able to move.  Aston Villa 2, Nottingham Forest 0 in the 29th minute.  The team’s tally of 26 first-half goals in 26 games was the most of any team in the Premier League and the half was not yet over.

Forest, visibly rattled, were nervous in possession, and showed little motivation to threaten our solid defense.  Then, when Watkins had a one-on-one with Felipe on the left, the defender felt compelled to foul our striker rather than let Ollie threaten to add to our Villans’ lead.  The circumstances were conducive for Luiz to show one of his many skills and he whipped a powerful shot to the goalie’s near top corner only for Danillo to intercede and head over. 

McGinn took the corner that was headed clear.  Cash, patrolling outside the penalty area, noted that our captain had raced back to an onside position, and he immediately dispatched the ball out to John in plenty of space.  Elanga quickly hustled over as our canny Scot shaped to cross with his preferred left foot.  When McGinn pulled it back, the Forest winger was totally fooled, and John had our two tallest defenders (Lenglet and Torres) and striker (Watkins) well-positioned just outside the 6-yard box waiting.

Sure enough, the cross was whipped with just the right amount of spin, to a perfect location and height and we had four Villans waiting.  Lenglet was the first in-line and, if he had headed, he would have had to skim to the far corner and Sels was preparing to dive in that direction.  Clément sensed that and was also aware that Douglas Luiz was just behind and unmarked.  He, let it go and, running forward, Luiz got more height and more oomph, and the header exploded past the goalie’s left shoulder.  Luiz led his fellow claret and blues to the corner and took in the Holte End fans’ delight.  Aston Villa 3, Nottingham Forest 0 in the 40th minute. 

That should have been that.  Forest were in shell-shock as they looked at each other.  Manager, Espirito Santo, appeared equally perplexed.  The visitors threw players forward to exploit a potential Villa lack of concentration only for our Villans to counter. Felipe barely was forced to concede a yellow card foul to prevent Ollie Watkins breaking on goal.

As the 45-minute mark came, it seemed that this was likely to be a repeat of our 5-0 demolition of Sheffield United, exactly three-weeks before, but something strange happened.  Actually, a few strange occurrences, starting in first half injury time.  From an innocuous attack by the visitors we conceded a corner, just one of two they won in the whole game.  Then, Awoniyi beat his markers at the back post and headed across the face of the goal.  Ollie Watkins was already moving forward to catch any visitor in the 6-yard box offside, only to see, too late, that Niakhaté had held his run and was able to beat the offside trap and chest the ball into the net with Emi scrambling.  Aston Villa 3, Nottingham Forest 1 in the 45+5th minute. 

Under normal circumstances, that would have been a wake-up call and our Villans would have started the second-half the way they had the first. Our Villans would have comfortably coasted to the finish line, likely picking up another goal or two along the way.

When the teams appeared for the second-half there was a nervous reaction from the crowd as they recognised that Torres was missing, and Calum Chambers was replacing him.  While Forest fans were applauding the inclusion of Harry Toffolo, Andrew Omobamidele, and Divock Origi, our Villan fans were stunned that the majestic Torres had been replaced by the pedestrian Chambers.

The composure that they had sensed came with the return of the Spaniard could easily evaporate if he had suffered a reinjury.  The team now had to adjust to holding a two-goal lead and then face the potential longer-term consequences of more injury readjustments.  A 5-5 tie between these teams in 2018 came to mind and that did not settle Villan nerves.

To their credit, our Villans started brightly and appeared to be anxious to regain their three-goal advantage.  If anything, they may have been forcing the play and attempting to make the perfect pass.  Meanwhile, Forest were benefitting from the energy of their substitutes free from the constraints of carrying yellow cards as the withdrawn Felipe and Murillo were.

What could have been a turning point event in our Villans’ season happened within a couple of minutes of resumption of play.  A rejuvenated Elanga who was carrying the ball down the right wing towards our penalty area, well-shepherded by Moreno, Lenglet, McGinn and Luiz, tripped just outside the box.  Our Claret and Blues restrained themselves from diving in and, potentially, giving up a penalty.

We had the manpower to deal with danger lined up along the penalty box. The only attacker was Gibbs-White and he was poised onside and ready to pounce.  When the ball came loose, Origi was there to gather and he immediately angled a pass for Gibbs-White to run onto.  While Lenglet and Chambers had stepped forward to put Gibbs-White in an offside position, Matty Cash was caught ball watching and was a step too late.

Gibbs-White gathered the pass and, as Martinez rushed out to close the angle, he cleverly chipped over Emi’s right shoulder and into the net.  Aston Villa 3, Nottingham Forest 2 in the 48th minute.  Villa fans were stunned and went silent.  Our Villans found themselves letting Forest temporarily dominate the play and gave them enough time to fashion an incisive pass to Elanga and a golden opportunity to tie the game.  Fortunately, the Swede slid his shot the wrong side of the far post.

Credit to Chambers that, when confronted by the high-press, he carried the ball 30-yards before finding Tielemans in space and the Belgian’s relay to Watkins was almost a golden opportunity. Then, Lenglet found Bailey on the right wing with a 50-yard pass, and Leon dribbled to the penalty area to find space to shoot, eventually floating over a cross for Ramsey.  That was overhit, but it gave Moreno a chance to recover and round Williams at the goal line before pulling back to Tielemans who zinged a shot along the turf to the goalie’s right and leaving him totally flat-footed.  The ball pinged off the post and back into play and Forest cleared.

With Chambers appearing solid and our Villans controlling most of the play, the crowd responded, and they soon got what they were looking for.  When Moreno, was beaten down the wing by Williams, he rugby tackled the Welsh fullback while Lenglet conceded a corner to clear the danger.  From the corner, it was Bailey who was quickest to a loose ball and composed and skilful enough to carry down the field and win a freekick. 

The momentum had shifted back to our Villans and bringing a fresh Digne, back from injury, for Moreno, carrying a yellow card, was another positive sign.  The crispness and accuracy of our passes continued to impress with a slip working in our favor as the play came to the hour mark.

A give-and-go between Bailey and Tielemans went awry when Toffolo barged Leon off the field.  Emery has done well to instill our players with the discipline to get on with the game and they did so.  In fact, Watkins came over to help press Niakhaté, Omobamidele, and Domínguez and when they undercooked a pass to Danilo, Tielemans was able to intercede and nick possession.

What followed was pure clinical finishing.  Tielemans teased a pass for Ollie to step-over as he rounded Omobamidele while resisting the defender’s desperate push, then pull back the ball from the reach of Sels towards Bailey racing to his right to slide into an empty net.  Meanwhile, the Forest culprits (principally Toffolo and Domínguez) stood ball-watching.  Aston Villa 4, Nottingham Forest 2 in the 61st minute. 

Effectively, the game was over.  To complete a very good performance under difficult circumstances, a threatening cross by Danilo was reached first by Chambers who had the poise to head high and safe for Martinez to grasp with conviction, well above the fray.

The news after the game was reassuring for the near future of our Villans.  Torres had been replaced as a precautionary measure based on some discomfort and should be available for future games.  Meanwhile, Emery had confirmed that he has plenty of depth at the back line with Chambers and Lenglet solid as 5th and 6th options.

As for Tielemans replacing Kamara, the Belgian is a totally different kind of player who provides more positives going forward, lessening the pressure on Luiz and McGinn.

Potentially overlooked might have been another step towards last season’s form by Jacob Ramsey who can do so many things well and who is an invaluable complement to Watkins, particularly.

For Manchester United to lose while we won, was also a huge benefit in the race for a top-four spot. The Red Devils’ loss was against Fulham, at Old Trafford, only a week after we had beaten Fulham at Craven Cottage.

The psychological advantage that we lost against Man U swung back in our favor, as does the points advantage.

Aston Villa: Martínez, Cash, Lenglet, Torres (Chambers 45′), Moreno (Digne 59′), Bailey, McGinn, Douglas Luiz, Ramsey, Tielemans (Zaniolo 81′), Watkins

Unused Subs: Gauci, Diaby, Olsen, Rogers, Kesler Hayden, IroegbunamNott’m Forest: Sels, Williams, Felipe (Omobamidele 45′), Murillo (Toffolo 45′), Niakhaté, Domínguez (Yates 73′), Danilo, Elanga, Gibbs-White (Reyna 81′), Hudson

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