Villa make the case for the defence..
Battling Villa saw off Middlesbrough in a double marathon of defensive intensity and Zen-like concentration, as London called to two faraway towns, who were both desperately willing to battle to their last drop of sweat, for the chance to contest the right to rub shoulders with the Premier League’s plutocrats and enjoy a transfusion of hypertrophic mega-bucks and prestige. This particular half of the Championship semi-final play-off double-headers didn’t amount to a thing of beauty and mostly was the predictable outcome when two pragmatic managers meet, who are known to prefer the opposition to attempt the fancy stuff and then punish them for it. As both managers were defenders in their playing days, this came as no surprise. Villa prevailed by the narrowest of margins after Mile Jedinak scored a fine headed goal on fifteen minutes in the first leg and then made himself a human buttress for the rest of the 180 minutes to nullify Middlesbrough’s creative intents.
Both games followed the same pattern, with Villa starting with what looked like the right balance of attack to defence, and created themselves some decent opportunities. Then as the games progressed they just sat deeper and deeper, while leaving an isolated attacker upfield chasing balls from increasingly desperate clearances, as Middlesbrough monopolised possession and kept up the pressure. With Jedinak making consistent interventions in front of the back-four and Hutton doing a man-to-man job on ex-Villan Adama, Middlesbrough didn’t create anything clear-cut but came terrifyingly close at the end of both games. There was the usual smattering of odd refereeing decisions but I think the officials did very well to keep all the players on the pitch when either side could have easily lost one, which would have spoilt the contest. Both sets of fans will have different opinions on Friend’s follow-through on Johnstone and Johnstone handling outside the box, but ultimately I think the referee got the decisions right.
At the Riverside Middlesbrough had the first shot on goal. Shotton spent what seemed like an unreasonable amount of time tampering with the ball and sent a long throw into Villa’s penalty area, which was straight onto
Hutton’s head. His clearance went to Besic who shot high over the bar. Villa responded with an attack down the left and Shotton blocked Adomah’s attempted cross for a corner. Grealish took the kick and lofted the ball towards the near-post where the darting Jedinak met it with his head and deftly flicked it just inside the far-post, with Randolph looking bemused, to open the score for Villa. Randolph was in trouble again when a Snodgrass free-kick on the left was sent looping towards the top-corner of his the goal by the head of Jedinak. Randolph saved but managed to carry the ball out for a corner. The Snodgrass corner beat all the Middlesbrough defence and at the far-post Adomah shot into the side-netting from the byline. A poor clearance from Villa led to some incisive direct play from Middlesbrough. Assombalonga took a defence-splitting pass on his chest and blasted over, from just inside Villa’s area. Villa had the chance to make it two when Hutton combined with Adomah out on the left, and Albert sent a decent cross for the Snodmeister to header over. Grealish then gave the ball away in Villa’s attacking-third and Middlesbrough incisively broke away and set up Assombalonga for a very similar chance to his first and he shot into Villa’s side-netting. Adama then escaped his attendants out on the left and sent in a great cross which Assombalonga met with a diving-header but it was straight at Johnstone. It was then Randolph’s turn to save the day for Middlesbrough, when a neat passage of play between Grealish and Snodgrass resulted in a well-hit curling shot, which the Middlesbrough goalkeeper managed to palm onto the post. The half-time whistle blew.
Villa started the second-half by sitting deep and the minutes passed in midfield stalemate. Middlesbrough found a way through, when Besic and Howson combined to set up Fabio to create an opportunity but he put his cross went behind Assombalonga and Villa were able to clear. With Downing probing from deep positions, Middlesbrough won a free-kick on Villa’s right after Snodgrass almost made contact with Friend. The free-kick was sent in but Gibson could only manage to get a weak contact with his head and it was easy for Johnstone. Villa were well and truly camped in their own area and Middlesbrough sent in the crosses but Villa managed to scramble it away. Then came one of those unfathomable refereeing decisions, when a long Villa ball found Kodjia in the Middlesbrough half, and was clearly held back by Shotton. The referee somehow decided that Kodjia had committed the foul, much to his dismay. Middlesbrough were dominating possession and once again Fabio was found unmarked on Villa’s left. He hit a hard shot across Villa’s goal and Johnstone was forced to punch it away. With El Mohamady off injured Middlesbrough were exploiting Villa’s left flank and a Downing cross found Friend in the area but he was forced to rush his shot under pressure from Snodgrass, and he skewed his shot into the stand. Things were getting desperate for Villa and another good chance fell to Fabio but he hit it well wide. Villa smothered one last move by Middlesbrough and Grealish ran the full length of the pitch. Shotton pushed him to the ground when he got into the area and the referee blew for full-time, to the incredible relief of the Villa faithful. It had been a thoroughly professional defensive performance by Villa and the intensity was such
that Middlesbrough were never allowed the time to finish the chances they created.
The nerves of the Villa faithful were twanging on Tuesday night as the play-off final seemed oh so near, yet so far away. Score and Middlesbrough would have a mountain to climb. Concede and the initiative would switch to the visitors. The loss of El Mohamady through injury looked to weaken the right flank and fingers were crossed that James Bree could do a job in his place. Villa started positively and a blocked shot from Grealish led to some fancy trickery between Adomah and Grabban, which included a back-heel, but the latter’s attempt was blocked for a corner. The corner was taken by Grealish who sent it short to Hourihane who returned it and our Jack rolled it to James Bree whose shot on goal lacked in accuracy what it had in power. The next incident to follow featured George Friend, who, having broken into Villa’s penalty-area along the left byline, let the ball escape him, and slid into goalkeeper Johnstone, a mile late and with his studs showing. It was the sort of challenge players routinely get sent off for. Referee Mike Dean gave him a yellow card. A decision meant to serve the game rather than the letter of the law. Villa then created a chance which have killed the tie, after winning another corner from a deflected Grealish shot. Some mesmerising head-tennis ensued from the kick, which
climaxed when Grabban headed down to James Chester, who swivelling shot past the post. The tension increased as the first half drew to a close.
Villa started to give the ball away early on in the second half and Jonny Howson set up Besic for a shot from the edge of the area but it was deflected wide. Hutton broke up a Middlesbrough move and sent Adomah and Grealish down the left. Adomah sent it inside to Grealish and Jack slipped it through the gap for Adomah to cross. Grabban ran across his man at the near post and poked in a sharp shot with his right but Randolph was ideally positioned to save with his legs. Grabban was sent away again with a fine pass from Hutton and once again Randolph saved with an outstretched leg. But it turned out Grabban was a yard off-side. Villa broke again and Snodgrass was fouled, but the referee played advantage. Grabban jinked and turned and from more than thirty yards, sent in a fabulous swerving shot which Randolph was forced to tip over. Another great long-ball from Hutton sent Grabban through a gap in the Middlesbrough defence. He passed back to Adomah on the left who tried a long-range curler which went beyond the far-post. Villa then won possession in the middle of the park when Adomah collided with Besic. Hourihane took it left and swapped passes with Adomah whose run pulled the Middlesbrough defence out of position. Grealish got it back and with space behind the defender, he jinked past him and sent in far-post curler which Randolph could only push out to Bree, whose cross was headed away by Friend. Middlesbrough were struggling to clear their lines on Villa’s left and every time they hacked it away it ame back again. Kodjia and Adomah out-muscled a Middlesbrough defender on the left and slipped in Hourihane who fired in a tame shot for Randolph to collect. A big up and under from the back by Middlesbrough and it looked like it would bounce to Johnstone, but either back-spin or a divot checked the bounce and it was headed back to Adama who shot but Johnstone got a finger-tip to it but was marginally outside his penalty area. John Terry was between Adama and the goal, and so Mike Dean decided only a yellow-card was due. Villa OB Downing took the beautifully struck free-kick from the very edge of the area. The sheer pace beat Johnstone and it clipped the bar above his head and went out for a goal-kick. It all got a bit frantic as the Smoggies looked for an equaliser as the added minutes ticked away. Villa hack it away. Middlesbrough come again. Adama had one last attempt. It was blocked by Grealish and the final whistle went. Villa had booked their passage to Wembley and the sacred turf got a bit of a terpsichorean trampling.
Reaching the final is a marvellous achievement but seemingly endless minutes of back-to-the-wall defending was rather more traumatic than I tend to prefer. Certainly a complete defensive performance but it was hard not to conclude that Villa could have made it a lot easier for themselves if they had taken another of the their many chances. With his goal and all-round defensive performance Jedinak was Villa’s best performer over the two legs, but over the two leg battle it will go down as one the great team performances in modern Villa history. I think Darren Randolph (The Stopper of Bray?) kept Middlesbrough in with a chance with some excellent saves and George Friend made a lot of crucial interventions. Villa paid a huge compliment to Adama by man-marking him and Alan Hutton substantiated his legendary status with the thorough job he did. Playing Fulham in the final offers an entirely new set of problems to deal with and Steve Bruce needs an entirely new game-plan to get Villa over the line. The pundits tell us that Villa go into the game as underdogs, a status which I think I prefer, when it comes to such occasions. The stakes are huge and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t nervous at the very thought of it. But the faithful are saying that the Villa pride is back. Wembley is the perfect stage to find out. So get ready!
Keep the faith!