The Blades get the plaudits, Villa get all the points..
The Blades get the plaudits, Villa get all the points..
It took a 90th minute super-strike from Robert Snodgrass, now to be known as the Thane of Lanarkshire, for Villa to bring what had been a battle of attrition to a happy and climactic conclusion, on Tuesday night. Chris Wilder’s well-organised and tenacious team had been excellent for most of the game and certainly better than Villa for the whole of the first-half, but couldn’t find a way past Super Sam Johnstone in the Villa goal. They were rather more impressive than a newly promoted team really has the right to be. Superbly organised in defence, quicker to the ball than Villa, and always ready to spring an attack, they were just waiting for an opportunity or the sort of Villa mistake, which gifted them two goals at Villa Park back in December. It was a great relief that it didn’t happen. They had their chances, as did Villa, came close, but Sam Johnstone kept them out. Until Bruce began to ring the changes late in the game, the contest looked odds-on to end in stalemate. The arrival of Onomah and Davis changed the game in Villa’s favour, the Snodmeister found a bit more space, and bent a humdinger into the Blades’ onion-bag on 90 minutes.
Villa were struggling to get out of their own half in the early minutes of the first-half, and when Jack O’Connell crashed a header against Villa’s crossbar from a corner, it looked like Villa were in for a torrid time at Bramall Lane. Alan Hutton managed to give the ball away with an under-hit pass after a Villa throw-in on the left flank of United’s final quarter. A long ball sent Leon Clarke on a diagonal run but he was well policed by El Mohamady and James Chester, and was forced to shoot from distance, which was easy enough for goalkeeper Johnstone. Villa replied when Snodgrass broke up a developing passing move by the Blades, and sent the ball to Hogan, waiting centrally on the halfway-line, who made a curving turn into the space in front of the Blades’ backline, as they reformed their two banks of four, and fed Grealish on the left, who sent Adomah away into a crossing position. Basham intervened and sent the ball for a corner. Snodgrass’s out-swinging corner eluded every head except Hourihane’s, who was cleverly floored by Fleck with a body-check, and who was free to spring the counter-attack, while Hourihane was left demanding a penalty. Nothing doing. Fleck found Clarke with a cross-field diagonal pass which was impeded slightly by a John Terry’s aerial boot, this bought Villa an extra moment of recovery time. Clarke flicked the ball to the overlapping George Baldock who fired in a powerful shot which Johnstone did very well to push behind. From a throw on Villa’s right Sheffield United created their best chance when some great movement from Leon Clarke, set them up for a shot from the edge of Villa’s area, which was deflected to the right flank. The cross came in and Manchester United loanee Wilson sent an overhead-kick wide of Villa’s post. As the half-time whistle went Villa were happy enough to have reached the break without conceding.
Villa started the second period with a more positive note and the Blades were not quite so lively in re-forming their shape, when they lost the ball. Hutton charged through a gap and sent a well hit shot which goalkeeper Moore saved comfortably. From a throw-in on their left Villa created a chance for a cross which Adomah overhit and then doing his best to keep the ball in play, Hourihane somehow contrived to give it away and sent United away on attack with Wilson. Wilson was intercepted by Bjarnason and Hourihane retrieved possession by nipping in to take the ball back. The frustrated Wilson tripped him and earned himself a booking. Bjarnason was quickly involved again, when he sent Grealish away, who flashed a bending shot past Sheffield’s far post, with goalkeeper Moore arriving a little after the event. The game looked to be opening up as Villa failed to clear their lines from a corner and Baldock charged in to blast in a straight shot which Johnstone needed to tip over. The blades were at it again and as the referee waved play on after what looked like a foul on Snodgrass, created themselves another shooting opportunity, which required Johnstone to produce probably his best save of the day, with a strong hand low down to his right, after he saw it very late. The Villa’s moment came, with the ball being sent quickly across field via Onomah and Bjarnason to Snodgrass, who was very wide on the right and almost on the touchline. His position brought the defender out and increased the gap between the back and their central two. With a perfect check-back the Snodmeister opened up the channel and sent in an unstoppable dipping, bender, and settled matters. Everything went bonkers and the stewards were out in force. The Blades caused a bit of discomfort for Villa from a very late corner but the whistle finally went. It had not been a pretty game but it was a great win against a team which looks to be very much on the up.
It was a hard fought battle between two evenly matched teams and although there were a few cries for more style, from the usual suspects, the overwhelming majority of the Villa faithful were well satisfied with their team’s solid performance. Villa negated most of what Sheffield United threw at them, and then had the quality to win the game in the final minutes. Sam Johnson was Villa’s man of the match but Villa’s defensive players kept Villa in the game, when the Blades were on full turbo. Bjarnason made another very strong showing and obviously Robert Snodgrass’s goal was sheer quality. Villa’s attacking opportunities were limited by the failure to really connect with Hogan up front, who looked isolated and frustrated for much of the game. Both Onomah and Davis made a difference when they came on, the angles of the passing combinations changed and the ball was released earlier. The Blades lacked Villa’s options but considering how they profited more from Villa’s mistakes than their own invention at Villa Park, they can’t really feel too hard done by.
Obviously it was the combination of the late winner and moving into third place in the table which put the result into such positive context. Being a single point behind an automatic promotion place and having a seven point cushion for remaining in the play-off places, is what really excited the Villan’s rosy glow. This certainly changes the perspective away from whether Bruce’s team is an adornment to the division and more towards accepting that Villa are involved in a serious battle for the club’s ultimate ambition of Premier League status. It has suddenly become very serious, as we face the prospect of being in a situation where there is all to play for and everything to lose.
The club certainly seems to be taking it very seriously and with the welcome arrival Lewis Grabban as the transfer-window closed, Bruce seems to have cover for most of his key players. Grabban’s record of twelve goals in nineteen games for Sunderland is very impressive. It is difficult to make much of an assessment from his greatest hits because everyone looks like a world-beater from their highlights. He certainly looks physically powerful and with a good shot on him but what the rest of his game is like, is yet to be revealed. The club definitely have done well in utilising the loan-system to make the signing possible within the bounds of FFP rules. It is all getting very tricky as Ross McCormack will be coming back in April.
In the meantime Villa must face a potential banana-skin when Burton Albion visit Villa Park on Saturday. What with Villa needing another win to make it six out of six and Darren Bent likely to make an appearance after his loan from Derby, there seems rather more signs that fate might intervene, to feel entirely confident in predicting an easy win for Villa, despite the contrasting form of the two clubs. Should Derby fail to beat Brentford at home and Villa beat Burton, then we will go second and we will be in dreamland.
Keep the faith!