Apologies for the tardiness of this article – I have been away over the weekend and have not had the opportunity to offer my thoughts on our opening win of the season on Friday night, which seems a lifetime ago now.
Fortunately, I had the opportunity to watch the match where I was and every spine-tingling second was pure joy, pure theatre. Had Ben Stokes not gone and spoiled it, I have little doubt what THE talking point of the weekend would have been!
Of course, the match was not entirely plain sailing and it’s likely an Everton attack led by, say, Romelu Lukaku, might well have punished the (very rare) defensive lapses, rather than the more toothless finishing of Calvert-Lewin or Walcott and the bravery of the North Stand goalpost. But I don’t want to dwell on Everton.
Under the lights at a pumped-up Villa Park, especially on a late-summer, balmy evening, Aston Villa in full cry are something to behold and we’ve been starved of it for far too long. After an initial spell where Everton dominated, Villa held their nerve and played their way back into the game.
Villa Park is truly a special place on nights like this: the air full of warmth and hope, Holte End in full cry, Jack Grealish, socks slightly down but ambition sky-high, and now with a record-signing goalscoring centre-forward in Wesley…more @TimesSport 2-0 #avfc f-t
— Henry Winter (@henrywinter) August 23, 2019
Balls were invariably played long from either Heaton or the rest of the defence up to Wesley, who to be fair showed better strength and determination in his hold-up play than in the first couple of matches. Crucially, he remained on his feet, instead of going down and looking for the foul and his contribution was the better for it.
Once we stopped the hoofball, our performance improved exponentially and Villa began to take control. Despite possession stats which ended up showing Everton dominance of 65/35, it’s what Villa were able to achieve with the ball which mattered most. Movement off the ball and mobility from Guilbert and Jota down the right sparked Villa into life, driven by the tireless McGinn and the rapidly maturing Grealish.
Indeed, it was the Grealish/Guilbert/Jota combination following quick-thinking from the skipper which led to Wesley first goal in English football, an expertly taken drive into the far corner, following a killer pass from Jota onto an immaculately timed run by the Brazilian which left Keane chasing shadows.
— Aston Villa (@AVFCOfficial) August 25, 2019
The stadium erupted – almost literally it seemed. Much of the pre-match guff from Sky centred around Villa’s return to the Prem, the size of the club, the stadium, the atmosphere generated. Gary Neville commented more than once that Villa Park was his favourite stadium after Old Trafford, although this was perhaps was more to do with the fact he only ever lost once at B6 – Villa have failed to beat Manchester United at Villa Park since 1995, an utterly disgraceful record we ought to put right this season.
Even Jamie Carragher was effusive in his praise of the club and the stadium and rightly so. As I mentioned, there can be few places as spine-tingling as Villa Park at night with the team on-song. Whatever your footballing persuasion, it’s a tremendously historical venue, a ‘proper’ football ground with four individual stands and the fans almost as close to the pitch as it’s possible to be.
And the team were on-song. Despite Everton’s long spells of possession, it was Villa who were more threatening throughout. Players grew into the occasion and the result was no more than our early season performances have deserved. The loss may have been harsh on Everton but their lack of cutting edge is just not going to fly at this level.
After a haphazard start and fourth-minute booking, Frenchman Frederic Guilbert grew into the game quickly and his confidence went through the roof. He has staggering pace and looks dangerous every time he goes forward. Defensively, he looked increasingly assured and one sliding tackle, in particular, had the crowd on their feet.
Mings and Engels again looked like they might become Villa centre-back legends, Mings especially impressive after a pre-match groin injury scare which precipitated him playing following an emergency pain-killing injection. With luck, he’ll be good for Saturday’s trip to Crystal Palace.
Elsewhere, Heaton had little to do but looked more assured and commanding than his debut, while Douglas Luiz was quietly effective shoring up behind Grealish and McGinn. The change which saw Jota in for El Ghazi (and a switch to the left for Trezeguet) was a big positive, the Spaniard making a greater impact than the Dutchman has made in the first two matches.
Having said that, El Ghazi made a significant impact from the bench, running on to McGinn’s pass and slotting in at the Holte to make the points safe in the 94th minute, following fine work again from the impressive Wesley.
Much had been made in the media of Wesley’s performances in the opening matches, but his performance on Friday was top drawer. He’s settling quickly into a totally different environment compared with the Slovak or Belgian leagues, and to get off the mark was a huge boost for him, the club and the fans.
So, onwards to south London. Palace will be no pushovers – their last-gasp win at Old Trafford on Saturday will be a huge positive for them – but it’s an opportunity to Villa to keep up the momentum and take points from a team who most pundits would consider our rivals this season as we look to avoid a swift return to the Championship netherworld.
Plenty of reasons to be cheerful then as we head towards the first international break of the season (my goodness, how much do I hate these intrusions into the season, especially so early into proceedings?!) First win under our belts, the first goal for our record signing, a first clean sheet for the defence. Positive debuts from Guilbert and Jota, all others showing grit, determination and, above all, improvement.
You can hear us singing from the stands at Villa Park. And I don’t think it’s going to quieten down any time soon.
A lil bit of Jota in my life
A little bit of Wesley by my side
A lil bit of Heatons is all I need
A lil bit of Ghazi is what I see
A lil bit of McGinn in the sun
A lil bit of Mings all night long
A lil bit of Grealish, here I am
A lil bit of Villa makes me your fan #avfc #utv
— ????Princess????????Villan???? (@ACVUFNCT) August 25, 2019
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