Aston Villa (3), Bournemouth (1) – Our Villans smite the Cherries on way to the Champions League

Sunday, April 21, 15:00 – Villa Park

Referee: Tim Robinson

Unai Emery knew that the biggest challenge his team would face as they kicked off against the Cherries would be physical and mental exhaustion.  If unaddressed, this over-performing Bournemouth team could easily grab an early lead and our Villans would be trying to gain control of the match while playing catch-up.

The Spaniard’s solution?  Call on the Villa fans to boost their boys.  The fans were already inclined to help having seen their team stop the Gunners cold at the Emirates on their way to a brilliant 2-0 win exactly seven days prior.  Then, three days prior, the team had traveled to Lille, France, to hold a very talented Ligue 1 team at bay in the Europa Conference League Quarter Final until the penalty shoot-out for which they had the best goalkeeper in the world.  Suffice to say, Emi saved two of the Lille penalty kicks and our Villans are in the Europa Conference League Semi-Finals.

Villa fans got the message, were there in numbers, packed to the gills, and in glorious voice.  The team was on the front foot from the get-go and, within minutes, we knew that our Villans were prepared to continue their inexorable drive to UEFA Champions League soccer next season.  Sure enough, the visitors scored first but that only proved to be a speedbump in this leg of the journey.

So, what happened?  To start with, the team almost picked themselves.  With Zaniolo and Moreno not fit to play from last week’s squad, the only flexibility Emery had was whether to start with Konsa, Carlos, Torres, Digne at the back (as played against the Gunners) or Cash, Konsa, Torres, Digne (as played against Lille).  Emery stayed with his Lille foursome, with Konsa able to focus on Dominic Solanke, the Cherries red-hot striker.  With Luiz still unavailable due to his yellow-card suspension, Rogers extended his Premier League starts and Bailey and Diaby were on the field together to start, a rare occurrence.

From the Cherries’ kickoff, the ball ended up deep in Villa’s half on the left.  Digne took the throw-in to McGinn who made himself available.  The visitors looked to high-press around our Villa captain and all his options were covered.  John did an excellent anti-clockwise pirouette that saw him facing an open field to the right.  He passed back to Konsa who passed to Cash.  When Bournemouth continued to press Martinez was included in the play.  Emery’s strategy is to have the goalie draw a forward before passing and for the midfielders to keep moving to get open. It looks risky, but done right, it opens up the field.

When the Cherries did intercept a pass, Solanke was fed just outside the penalty area and he attempted to dribble into the box, but the nimble Torres was able to corral the ball.  Our Villans cleared temporarily only for the Cherries to attempt to pass over Digne – not a good idea.  Our French international backed-up and cushioned a header to Youri Tielemans who passed back.  This time, Digne rolled a pass to McGinn who, in one motion, lofted a penetrating pass down the left wing in the visitor’s half for Watkins to compete for.  Zabarnyi and co. dealt with that, as they did with our Villans thrust down the right.

What did work for us was an inspired play that started with Konsa feeding Martinez who zipped a ball towards the center circle for Rogers racing across to receive.  Morgan totally fooled his marker when he let it pass knowing that Diaby running a perpendicular cross-path was there to receive.  Moussa carried, before passing to Watkins who received at the left corner of the box, only covered by Zabarnyi.

Ollie immediately cut inside and curled a shot toward Neto’s top left corner.  Credit to the Ukrainian international player for getting his left toe in the way and deflecting the shot onto the roof of the net. That could easily have been our Villans’ opener in the 5th minute from our first shot.  McGinn shot from the short corner but was well-wide.

Our Villans continued to control the game and, in the 12th minute, started an attack in their own penalty area that extended the full length of the field and was a whisker away from being a tap-in for Pau Torres.  It’s a move that will become part of the Villa repertoire and should lead to goals.

It started with a Cherries attack. A long pass from Senesi down the inside-left channel had Solanke get a step on Konsa but when the striker attempted to cut across our star center back, he showed too much of the ball to Ezri.  Instantly, Ezri slipped his right foot between the ball and Solanke and, using the outside of his foot, took possession and reversed field.  With a sleight of foot, a one-on-one in the Villa box became a pass from Konsa to McGinn.  McGinn immediately found Watkins fronting Zabarnyi, just over the halfway line.  Ollie reversed field to Digne who did the same to Torres.

As the Cherries forwards pressed our playmaker, Pau saw a channel open, and he ran through it.  Crossing the halfway line, he laid the ball off to Bailey who found Diaby running ahead to his right.  As Moussa reached the right corner of the Bournemouth penalty area, he could see that Watkins was slightly ahead of him but closely shadowed by Zabarnyi, and behind him, Torres who had continued his run in the inside-left channel, was open and was waving for the ball.  Diaby curved a teasing cross around Kelly and Senesi and across the front of the 6-yard-box that Torres was a step away from making contact.  Neto, meanwhile, flung himself at the air ball, Pau ran into the net and the ball went out for a goal kick.  Diaby, Bailey, and Watkins all simultaneously raised their hands in anticipation of the goal that wasn’t.

Our Villans got a rude surprise in the 16th minute when Kluivert, out of nothing, hit a stinging drive toward Emi’s top right-hand corner from just inside the box, to the left.  Our goalie was perfectly positioned and got a strong hand to block the shot and McGinn headed the rocket, when it came down, out for a corner.

It was our Villans who got the best opportunity to score up that point when, in the 23rd minute, another end-to-end move should have been converted.  When Martinez received a pass back, he carried out of his area and, when he saw running Rogers running diagonally towards him in the center-circle, sent him a crisp pass.  Rogers took the pass and immediately swivelled and found Bailey closing in on the Cherries penalty area on the right.

After Leon ran Kelly back towards his own goal, he squared for Diaby, close to the penalty spot with only Neto in front of him, but Moussa, possibly distracted by a retreating Cook, muffed his lines and the ball went out for another goal kick.

Teams who create chances and do not convert them are susceptible to paying the ultimate price and that’s what happened to our Villans.  Bournemouth spurred by our profligacy, attacked with more belief and when Kluivert found Kerkez open outside Matty Cash in the penalty area, our Europa Conference League Thursday hero, felt compelled to stop the Serbian’s progress. 

Perhaps exhaustion was a factor (Cash had been one of our heroes in “Lille” running incessantly for 120 minutes, scoring the aggregate tying goal in the 87th minute, and scoring our third penalty in the shootout).  Regardless, when Kerkez pulled the ball back, Cash rashly went to ground and swept both legs from under the Cherry.  Torres spoke to the referee, likely about the heavy challenge by Senesi on Diaby that had given the Cherries possession, but the VAR official declined to make a call on the Senesi tackle and confirmed the penalty decision.

Solanke showed himself to be very composed, handling the VAR wait and Emi’s attempts to distract.  The penalty, itself, was hit wide enough, high enough, and hard enough that even though Martinez dove the right way (to his right), it was unstoppable.  AVFC 0, Bournemouth 1, in the 31st minute.  Solanke’s 18th goal in the Premier League this season, one behind Ollie Watkins.

Emery must have been disappointed to concede the goal, but pleased at the workmanlike response of the team.  As soon as Martinez got possession, he directed his clearance deep into the Cherry’s end on the left touchline for Digne who had advanced there.  Our Villans got a throw-in and Watkins and Bailey combined, to find Cash racing, open, in the inside right channel.  The pass was in-stride and our Polish international carried to a few yards outside the penalty area and unleashed a powerful daisy-cutter that Neto was happy to see go just wide of the post.

With our Villans pressing to get their offense going, they were always going to be susceptible to counterattacks.  That happened in the 36th minute and it was a well-timed run by Solanke that broke through our offside trap.  Konsa was playing catch-up as the striker entered the penalty area but, when the striker switched to his right foot to curve a shot around Emi, Konsa accelerated, slid and thrust his left foot to sweep the ball out for a corner.

From the corner, our Villans counter-attacked with Bailey sending a beautifully weighted pass down the right touchline and into the Cherries’ half only for Senesi to intentionally hack Moussa’s legs.  Referee Robinson had no problem making this call and, in fact, added a yellow card.

Our Villans continued to press for an equaliser before the halftime whistle, winning a corner when Cash’s pull-back from the goal line, was blocked in the 44th minute.  Shortly after, with the home team still pressing, the visitors did well to break and Ryan Christie led a charge down the field.  On the fly, Konsa, Digne, and Tielemans improvised an offside trap and Christie’s options were options evaporated just outside or penalty area. 

Meanwhile, Diaby had caught up with the Cherries’ midfield general and dispossessed him, and Bailey was there to immediately head in the opposite direction.   Bailey carried until close to the halfway line, then seeing that Rogers was open on the left, sprayed a sumptuous pass with the outside of his left foot. 

Watkins, for his part headed down the center of the field and dragged Zabarnyi and Senesi with him.  That allowed Rogers to run straight at the goal, barely hesitating as a desperate Adam Smith arrived.  Rogers’ quick feet saw him avoid Smith and hit a fierce drive that was over Neto’s shoulder and bulging the back of the net before the goalie could blink.  The crowd went wild.  46.06 on the clock and it was AVFC 1, Bournemouth 1, in injury time.  It was our Villans’ first shot on-target.

For the balance of the half, our Villans dominated with McGinn leading the way but stout defending by the visitors prevented us getting the lead.  Still, it was a relieved looking team and manager who left the field and who came back fifteen minutes later, ready to finish their business.

Our Villans kicked off towards the Holte End and played with confidence and purpose, with Tielemans prominent in Luiz’s absence.  The Cherries were well organized, and they did not offer any openings and neither team was able to penetrate.

A very good sign came in the 52nd minute when Konsa, deep in his own end, was able to find Rogers coming back through the middle.  Morgan one-touched Konsa’s crisp pass and redirected to Torres who had acres of space ahead of him.

The Spaniard carried, unchallenged into the Cherries half before sending a precise pass for Watkins to run onto in the inside-left channel while wearing Zabarnyi, like a cape.  Immediately the pass arrived, Ollie stopped in his tracks and turned inside leaving the Ukrainian defender on his knees.   With Cherries aplenty, Watkins went for power from outside the box, but his timing was off, and Neto gathered the shot easily.  Still, we knew the team would return to that spot.

They did so in the 57th minute.  This time it was Martinez to Tielemans to Torres playing out from the back, with Watkins coming back to receive a firmly hit pass from the Spaniard.  This time Zabarnyi was holding his shirt, so Watkins returned the ball to Torres who passed to Rogers while Watkins was extricating himself and leaving the Ukrainian behind as he raced up the left wing. 

Rogers was on the same page and curved a pass for Watkins to run onto and instantly perform an inside stepover onto his right foot.  Zabarnyi, chasing hard, could not slow his momentum before he crossed into the penalty area.  Ollie could see that Diaby had a step on Senesi and Kelly, but Zabarnyi, to his left, was playing-on Moussa.  Another exquisite diagonal pass was just too far for Neto to get to and our French international calmly side-footed his shot pass Neto’s planted left-foot.  AVFC 2, Bournemouth 1, in the 57th minute.

The crowd was in full song and our Villans gaining swagger, but that did not prevent the Cherries mounting counterattacks.  From one, Ouattara tested Martinez with a header at the near post coming in from the left.  A strong hand parried it away.

A succession of corners was won at the Holte End with Tielemans taking most of them and Neto challenged by the excellent crosses and the bright sun.  The Brazilian did well under the circumstances.  He could do nothing about the third goal that started with his opposite number.

Martinez directed a goalkick to Watkins in the inside left channel, again, just over the halfway line.  Despite lots of Cherries around him, Ollie’s hold-up and control were perfect, and he laid it back to Rogers who was facing the Cherries’ goal.  The Cherries swarm moved to Morgan and he turned with the ball and passed back to Digne.  Digne passed to Watkins again and, this time, Watkins expertly rolled Zabarnyi, outpaced him to the penalty area and laid off to Diaby and kept running through the Cherries’ backline to pickup Diaby’s relay. 

Ollie’s momentum was taking him from right to left in front of Neto. Instead of forcing a shot, Ollie gathered, and passed behind the goalie and across the face of the goal.  It may have been heading outside of the far post for a goal kick, but Johnny-on-the-spot, Leon Bailey, would never let that happen.  Our ever-improving Jamaican international was there to tap it into the back of the net.  AVFC 3, Bournemouth 1, in the 78th minute.

Our Villans knew from recent memory (against Brentford, only two weeks prior) that a two-goal lead was not security and they kept a tight reign on the game well into injury time.  Then, with only a minute left, Bournemouth almost scored from a shot by Enes Ünal, their late Turkish substitute. Martinez did well to block.  Then, the Turk beat Martinez to the rebound to shoot at a goalie-less net, only for Torres to clear off the line.

Overall, it turned out to be a very solid come from behind victory against a quality team.  Considering the circumstances (the heavy schedule and limited bench strength), it was a great boost for the team’s prospects.

Aston Villa (4, 2, 3, 1): Martínez, Cash (Kesler Hayden 96′), Konsa, Torres, Digne, McGinn, Tielemans, Bailey (Carlos 87′), Diaby (Durán 93′), Rogers, Watkins.

Unused Subs: Olsen, Chambers, Lenglet, Iroegbunam, Munroe, Kellyman.

Bournemouth (4, 2, 3, 1): Neto, Smith (Aarons 45′), Zabarnyi, Senesi (Semenyo 63′), Kelly, Cook, Christie (Scott 76′), Ouattara (Ünal 82′), Kluivert (Billing 76′), Kerkez, Solanke.

Unused Subs: Travers, McKenna, Hill, Gonzalez

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