Aston Villa (2), Wolverhampton Wanderers (0) – Dogged play nets an invaluable three points at Villa Park

Saturday, March 30, 16:30 – Villa Park

Referee: Paul Tierney

There was pervasive unease amongst Villa fans ahead of Saturday’s game against crosstown rivals, Wolverhampton Wanderers.  They had good reason to fear the worse.  The last Premier League game in Villa Park was a nightmare, losing 4-0 to Spurs and having captain John McGinn red carded.  The team that had won fifteen straight games at home (including Manchester City and Arsenal) had haemorrhaged goals and points since the beginning of the year losing to Manchester United, Newcastle and then, Tottenham Hotspur.  Only improved results away from home had maintained them in the hunt for a UEFA Champions League spot.

With fixtures coming up at Manchester City and Arsenal, a loss to Wolves would have doomed them to losing all three games and be out of the running. 

Wolves, meanwhile, were sporting some impressive recent results of their own (at home and away) and were within range of a Europa Conference League spot, with everything to play for, especially against a team they had handled well in recent years. Villa had not beaten Wolves at home since December 2003 – 20 years and counting!

The team appeared to mirror the crowd’s anxiety from the kickoff and a depleted Wolves squad (missing Neto, Hwang, Dawson, and Cunha to injury) played confidently, pressing high, and were easily sweeping up the long passes our Villans were forced to play.

When three Villans converged to defend a cross from the right in the 15th minute, they got in each other’s way and gifted a golden opportunity to Aït-Nouri.  The Algerian had time to control on the edge of the 6-yard box and aim his shot to Martinez’s left as Emi scrambled to his right to cover.  In that moment, he must have remembered the saves that won Argentina the World Cup.  Martinez spread his legs and deflected the shot over the bar.

That would have been a devastating start.  Instead, it served as a time to breathe again and take charge of the game.  Wolves were left with the opposite feeling of a chance squandered.

So, what happened after that?  Wolves were still able to retain most of the possession without McGinn and Kamara in our Villans’ midfield.  Rogers and Bailey were having to defend each wing while Tielemans sat in front of Villa’s back four in a holding position.  With only Douglas Luiz in a creative role, Watkins and Diaby saw little of the ball.

When Tielemans did get an opportunity to venture forward in the 28th minute, he threaded a perfect pass for Watkins to run onto.  Sa, the Wolves’ goalie came out and cut down the angle and Ollie’s left foot effort went just to the left of the left post.  That was no surprise to Villa fans as Ollie rarely, if ever scores with his left foot.  Fortunately, he is deadly with his right foot and his head.

Tielemans was so excited about his excellent pass that almost resulted in a goal that he found himself getting caught too far advanced and felt compelled to trip the speedy Aït-Nouri in his own half, receiving a yellow card for his troubles.

A sign that our Villans were slowly getting control of the game came shortly thereafter.  First, Rogers tracked Semedo down the right wing and forced him to carry the ball out of play and, in the process, regained possession for his team.

Emery was delighted and we soon found out what he was sensing.  From that possession Torres passed to Carlos who found Bailey with space on the wing and Leon used it to run at Aït-Nouri who was forced into conceding a corner, Villa’s first of the game.

Bailey made it short to Luiz who fed it back to our Jamaican international and Leon curved a cross to the edge of the 6-yard box only for the 1.93 meters (6’ 3”) Kilman to head clear.  Tielemans as the holding mid-fielder gathered and the ball was whipped convincingly back to Bailey.  This time the ball went in the same trajectory, but this time, Torres was ready.  He cut in front of Kilman and glanced a header that would have settled into the corner of the net if Sa had not positioned himself well and dove quickly to his right to grasp.  That was probably our Villans’ first shot on-target.

Soon after, with Wolves attacking, Rogers was again able to gain control and, this time, he bulled his way fully 50-yards through the retreating yellow shirts before he was finally dispossessed in enemy territory.  Wolves started again only, this time, Sarabia got caught by Villa’s effective offside trap and Villa started another possession from the back. 

This time, Carlos found Watkins coming back to accept the pass and Ollie immediately laid it off to Luiz, who advanced with the ball towards the penalty area.  He drew a gang of Wolves with Doyle deciding to block our Brazilian wizard illegally.  To his credit, the young Man City loanee, extended a hand to help Douglas to his feet.

It was a well-planned scheme and Austin Macphee, the set piece coach, could be heard yelling as the ball arced to Leon Bailey on the left side of the penalty area ready to volley across the edge of the 6-yard box where Watkins and the big guys from the back (Carlos, Torres, and Konsa) were to converge with seven yellow shirts defending.  The only problem for the visitors was that the over-commitment to the primary threat had left nobody marking Diaby waiting just outside the penalty area.

That would normally not be a major problem as anything that came back from a 6-yard-box scramble would have a delay factor that those seven could respond to.   Perfect execution from a Villa perspective would have had Bailey’s volleyed pass whip ahead of the crowd running toward the net, making it next to impossible for a defender to clear without risking an own goal.

As it was, by the time the ball had left Bailey’s foot and arrived at the 6-yard box, it was late and off-target (away from the goal).  In fact, the first of those defenders slowed down and attempted to block the cross but only succeeded in deflecting it and slowing it down.  For Diaby, it was the perfect pass, and he had the right side of the net to aim at as Sa had been caught “cheating” towards the left post, expecting Bailey’s cross to arrive there.

The French international has a very sweet left-foot and the shot was high in the corner before Sa could move.  It was a blistering drive!  Ironically, the defender who had deflected it was none other than Tommy Doyle who had committed the original foul that started the sequence of events.  As Tommy may have rued, if his similar shot from a headed corner clearance had gone just inside the left post instead of just outside it in the 5th minute, he would have been the hero of the hour and not the goat!  Such are the vicissitudes of soccer.  Aston Villa 1, Wolverhampton Wanderers 0 in the 36th minute.

Given the good start that Wolves had experienced followed by our Villans getting control, the fortunate circumstances of the goal felt like a sucker punch!  The teenager that Gary O’Neil had to insert as his striker, Leon Chiwome, looked forlorn as he tried to chase down long desperate passes. 

Our Villans appeared so confident that they had the game in the bag that Konsa, who had yet to score this Premier League season and who had injured himself by running into a goalpost in Villa’s rout at Sheffield United decided to try his luck with his left foot.  The result was closer to the corner flag and John McGinn and Tyrone Mings, in the crowd, were seen finding their buddy’s embarrassment very funny.

That was just before halftime and, instead of the post-England game glow he started the game with, he went into the dressing room somewhat deflated.  That may have served him well in the second half.

There was one piece of negative news when Villa returned to the field and that was the absence of Ollie Watkins.  He did not appear to have been hurt by a tackle, but the conclusion was that he must be experiencing some minor discomfort and Emery was being cautious with his personnel. 

Still, the team, with Durán on for Watkins, seemed to have retained their confident glow.  That would have been reinforced by Tielemans undercooking a pass to Konsa that Aït-Nouri jumped on and headed toward our Villans’ penalty area.  The Belgian international responded remarkably, turning on the burners and winning possession back inside our penalty box, then doing a U-turn and finding Bailey with a brilliant pass down the right wing.  Leon was able to turn inside at Wolves’ penalty box and get a powerful shot intended for the top left corner, only he was high and wide.

Then it was Wolves’ turn to show they hadn’t given up as Gomes carried the ball through plenty of claret blues before Alex Moreno decided that he better stop the Brazilian youngster and, unceremoniously, pushed him to the ground just outside our penalty area.

On better days, Wolves would have forced Martinez to a brilliant save or see our Villan lead disappear.  The lack of quality players on the field seemed to have drained the team’s confidence and Sarabia’s effort was neither powerful nor accurate and it sailed high and wide.

Then, when they did win a corner, Toti dragged Martinez to the ground and immediately negated the opportunity.  When Chiwome was fed a pass in Villa’s penalty area, it looked like a good chance for a shot on-goal, but Carlos slid expertly in the way and smothered the ball.  Martinez’s biggest challenge was finding the ball below his Brazilian teammate.

With Carlos requiring a little attention, Emery used the time to send on Zaniolo and Digne for Rogers and Moreno.  Both Villan starters were ready for the break.  Rogers had run himself ragged, especially in the first half and Moreno had never got into the game.

In contrast, both substitutes were almost hyperactive, especially Zaniolo, and their energy catalysed their teammates and the crowd.  Durán had failed to get a touch of the ball in the first 15 minutes of the half, but that was soon going to change.

When Digne received the ball from Torres on the left wing in his own half, both Luiz and Zaniolo came close to offer options.  The pass went to Luiz who carried towards Lucas before returning.  Digne, then slid the ball down the line to the angular Italian who was covered by the much more compact Doyle.  With arms extended, Nicolò managed to roll the ball back and get around Doyle at the touchline where Digne had already reached.  Wolves seemed to have matters under control as Semedo was blocking Digne and Zaniolo was well-watched by Doyle.  In fact, for a moment Doyle had control of the ball when Zaniolo let Digne’s pass roll over his foot.

Not to worry, a hungry Durán was nearby, and he slid across and stripped the ball away.  With the prone Columbian in his way, Doyle saw the frantic Italian come back, gather, and take off toward the penalty area with the Wolves defence holding a solid line with Toti having tracked Bailey to the middle. 

Zaniolo fed Diaby to his right and hesitated to allow Konsa, who appeared from nowhere on his right, to go past before laying a perfect pass for the converted center back to run onto.  Ezri looked up as he progressed toward the goal line and saw Durán was going to be clear at the far post and eased a cross in his direction.  Sa, at the near post, and Kilman had no chance to intercept but, with the ball kept fading towards the net, it became a shot and not a cross.  Eventually it hit the post and bounced into the net.

The Holte end were ecstatic.  It was also a very popular goal amongst Konsa’s teammates as they gathered around to celebrate his first Premier League goal in a couple of seasons.  Aston Villa 2, Wolverhampton Wanderers 0 in the 66th minute.  A minute later, another sliding interception by Durán led to a gilt-edged chance but Zaniolo did not have enough on the shot and Sa saved comfortably.  Thirty seconds later, Zaniolo had another a snapshot saved by Sa.

As Zaniolo inspired his fellow forwards, Digne was equally effective on defense.  The team cruised to the finish line with no further drama..

Aston Villa: Martínez, Konsa, Diego Carlos, Torres, Moreno (Digne 63′), Bailey (Kesler Hayden 97′), Tielemans, Douglas Luiz, Rogers (Zaniolo 63′), Diaby (Iroegbunam 88′), Watkins (Durán 45′)

Unused Subs: Chambers, Lenglet, Olsen, Kellyman

Wolves: José Sá, Santiago Bueno, Kilman, Toti Gomes, Nélson Semedo (Doherty 84′), João Gomes (Traoré 84′), Doyle (Chirewa 71′), Aït-Nouri (Hugo Bueno 64′), Sarabia, Mario Lemina, Chiwome (Fraser 84′)

Unused Subs:  Noha Lemina, Bentley, Holman, Barnett

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