444 the number of the Villa? (Sorry..JF)
Four out of four keeps Villa fourth…
A scintillating first twenty minutes of smart attacking football and four goals, sent Villa Park into ecstasy on Saturday as Villa consolidated their position of fourth in the table. Scott Hogan notched a brace, Jack Grealish pulled the strings and Hourihane scored the goal which secured the points, and barely twenty minutes had passed. Inevitably as both defences finally got their game-heads back on the contest petered out into Villa ordinaire. With other results going very much Villa’s way the faithful were sent home with a satisfied smile on their faces and renewed hope in their claret and blue hearts.
It was some incisive one-touch play which led to Villa’s opener. Barnsley were struggling to deal with some persistent pressure down Villa’s right and they hoofed the ball into Villa’s half, which was returned with precision by John Terry, right on to Snodgrass’s head, who flicked it sideways to El Mohamadi’s feet. Elmo quickly sent in a cross which the defender failed to cut out and Hogan nipped through the gap to steer the awkward ball around the goalkeeper to make it one-nil.
It was a sweeping Villa move which led to Villa’s second goal. Adomah went on a surging run down Villa’s left. He fed Grealish who was in typical number-ten territory, who then passed it on to Snodgrass at the apex of the penalty-area, on the right. A couple of Snodgrass tricks created a gap and his shot was deflected behind by a Barnsley boot. Snodgrass sent in the resulting corner which was met by Scott Hogan, who flicked his header home. Villa were in dreamland but the madness was to quickly continue at the other end of the pitch, as a hit and hope Barnsley ball bounced off Hutton for a corner. With John Terry being held down Cavare was totally free to head home at the near-post. Only seven minutes of the game had elapsed and three goals had been scored.
Villa’s third goal was a thing of wonder and beauty. Adomah broke on the left but couldn’t get past Cavare and the defender’s pass inside was hastily cleared from the edge of their box but only got as far as Grealish’s chest. Jack then proceeded to waltz his way past four defenders, who looked on uncertainly. Good movement by Hourihane and a precision pass through a narrow gap from Jack, combined to make the chance which Hourihane side-footed home on nineteen minutes. The game still remained busy. Snodgrass had a decent shot on goal from his favourite position on the right but the goalkeeper saved comfortably. Barnsley came dangerously close to scoring from a free-kick out on Villa’s left when Tom Bradshaw put an awkward header past Villa’s post. John Terry put a towering header from a Snodgrass corner so off target, it returned straight back to the Snodmeister, who laid it off to Grealish, who blasted in a curler which goalkeeper Davies was forced to punch away.
Villa were less convincing in the second half but Scott Hogan came within inches of scoring his hat-trick, when Adomah and Grealish combined down Villa’s left. Grealish put in one of those precision passes inside the right-back, which pass teasingly within a toe’s reach and caused the defender to hesitate. Adomah used the pass well and set up Hogan, whose blind shot around the corner hit the post, with the goalkeeper beaten. Villa created another chance when they broke in numbers, with a move sprung by Hogan, who started a four man combination between himself, Snodgrass, Grealish and then Hourihane, who shot with his left rather than his right and his effort went wide. Villa had two dodgy moments on the right which gave Kieffer Moore two opportunities to shoot. The first was saved by Johnstone with his legs and the second Moore put into row Z. It didn’t get any better for Villa, as once again Barnsley broke in numbers after Villa gave the ball away. It took a good save from Johnstone to keep out Bradshaw’s well hit shot and then again from a dolly by George Moncur. Villa had a chance to make it four when Grealish was brought down on the edge of the Barnsley penalty area and Snodgrass sent in a sizzler which rebounded off the palms of Davies, who was relieved to collect the rebound. It was a very good performance and an excellent result. Villa enjoyed being third for a couple of hours, until the news came through that Cardiff had earned a point away at Sheffield Wednesday.
Most of the happy talk through the week was about the transformation of Scott Hogan. Some said it was his new haircut. Some said it was better service. Others said he was digesting his spinach better since his operation. Most seemed to think that the personal attention of new first-team coach, Steve Agnew, had made the difference. Jack Grealish came in for a lot of praise which he certainly earned, even if a few Villa emergencies against Barnsley resulted from him giving the ball away.
Villa’s recent run of wins has certainly quietened down the expected transfer fever these past weeks, but it certainly looked like Villa needed some cover in central-defensive positions, what with Jedinak still struggling with his fitness and the recurring dread that James Chester might pick up an injury, being prominent in the fans’ minds. It certainly was disappointing to see Ritchie De Laet go out on loan, because he always looked like he could be a spectacular raiding wing-back. But as Villa seem to have a surfeit in that position and we are stuck with Micah Richards until 2019, something had to give. The arrival of a centre-back/defensive-midfielder was certainly signposted by the move but I am not sure many had guessed it would be Axel Tuanzebe. The Man United prodigy certainly interviews very well and comes across as incredibly mature for a 20-year-old. His expectations seem to be quite modest and he spoke of getting minutes rather than games. Bruce’s evident faith in youth probably means he’ll get quite a few minutes, as he seeks to rest his key players. He is very highly rated for his pace, tackling and distribution. And it would seem that a player called Axel would be an ideal player to bring on, when it looks like the wheels might come off.
Villa definitely need to avoid the wheels coming off on Tuesday night when they take on play-off contenders Sheffield United. If Fulham sustain their top form of five wins in six games on Saturday, away to Barnsley, then the Blades will drop to seventh but they will still be a tough challenge. Although it might be a factor it can’t be assumed that United will be tired from their FA Cup exploits, at home to Preston North End on Saturday. Villa need to be totally focused and be prepared to battle it out. Eliminating the sort of mistakes which turned a two-goal lead into a draw in the home fixture back in December will be essential. Judging by their second-half performance against Barnsley, Villa are still capable of letting a team back into the game. Villa need the sort of ruthlessly professional performance they showed at Forest if the are to get something out of the game. Tuesday is going to be a nervy night. Another win and we’ll be over the moon.
Keep the faith!