By Kris Woodward
Aston Villa fans everywhere will just about have recovered from an extremely tense two games against West Brom in the play-off semi-final. Despite going into the fixtures in fantastic form, Villa looked far from their best over both legs, eventually putting Villa fans through an unwanted and quite frankly unnecessary penalty shoot-out.
It was clear from the first five minutes, West Brom, and in particular James Shan, had come to Villa Park with the plan to keep Villa out by putting bodies behind the ball. The tactic seemed to work well, especially after getting the first goal, after the slice of luck of a misplaced Glen Whelan pass.
At half-time, the prospect of West Brom winning at Villa Park looked like a real possibility, which would have swung the tie completely in the Baggies favour, considering how well they were defending. A defence with a reputation for conceding goals, suddenly looked solid and would no doubt sit back and absorb the pressure again in the second leg.
While Villa eventually won the first leg, an early Albion goal at the Hawthorns still created the scenario where fans endured another gruelling, gut wrenching 120 minutes of football.
Pundits and football fans in general seemed to back Aston Villa, claiming they would make easy work of West Brom. As Villa fans, we knew that this would more than likely not be the case. Despite this, fans couldn’t have predicted how close it ended up being.
The score line, doesn’t quite tell the whole story though. Over both legs Villa accumulated a total of 69% and 73% possession, with a total of 45 shots. This is considerably more than the 15 that West Brom managed over both legs.
The stats themselves show Albion’s defensive tactics but more worryingly show how they very almost worked. From 45 shots, Villa’s only two goals came from a penalty and a long range effort.
Whilst Villa may not have been at their best, they showed extreme determination to get back into the tie and continue to try and break Albion down. Then, when the moment came, stepped up to win the penalty shoot-out and go through to consecutive play-off finals.
After the heroics of Tuesday, all eyes fell on Elland Road to see who Villa would face Bank Holiday Monday. Whilst many fans would claim they don’t care who Villa end up playing, few would’ve been disappointed to see Leeds beaten.
Aston Villa’s head-to-head record against Derby this season makes for far better reading to the games against Leeds. Over the two legs this season, Villa have taken maximum points from Derby, a 3-0 win at Pride Park and a 4-0 victory at Villa Park.
Despite being significant underdogs as well as losing the first leg, Derby deserved to progress through and when it comes to finals at Wembley, previous meetings mean very little.
Many describe the play-offs as a lottery, however it is anything but. Despite West Brom making it uncomfortable, Villa were the better team over the two legs and deserved to progress; similarly to last year, it would be difficult to argue against Fulham being the deserving side to gain promotion.
In reality the game will be won by which team performs on the day. Its clear Villa have the superior players, finished higher in the table, won more games and scored more goals than Derby this season (although Derby have scored more goals than any Championship team in the last 12 games of the regular season), but the day will be won by the players who keep their heads on the day.
Both teams are built up with a mixture of youth and experience. Derby have relied heavily this season on loanee’s Mason Mount (Chelsea) and Harry Wilson (Liverpool), who are both top scorer and joint second top scorer this season.
Aston Villa’s young guns are a lot more experienced in the Wembley experience with Grealish making his fourth appearance at the stadium. Top scorer Tammy Abraham has more recent experience playing in the Community Shield final for Chelsea, earlier this season.
It’s this experience and more importantly the experience of losing last year’s final that could be key for Villa. When the moment comes, Aston Villa fans will be hoping the players can rise to the occasion whilst equally hoping the Derby players are intimidated.