By Jonathan Parkin
With a creditable point gained away at Brighton at the weekend, Villa looked to build on a promising second half performance at home to Watford. Points were desperately needed. It seemed as if this match was to be a turning point in Villa’s season, for better or for worse.
Watford came into the tie in scintillating form, six league games unbeaten and four wins in that time, including a 3-0 demolition of the Villans at Vicarage Road. This meant Villa would have to be much better from the start to get all three points.
Dean Smith named an unchanged starting XI, sticking with a back three and with the same frontline that had hardly threatened Brighton. Indiana Vassilev and Douglas Luiz remained on the bench despite good performances on the south coast.
The game itself epitomised what it is like to be a Villa fan. The first half consisted of Villa huffing and puffing going forward and not really creating anything. Then that man Troy Deeney found himself free in the box to head home from close range before the break.
During the interval there was a sombre atmosphere around Villa park, with the Villa boys doing little to inspire. It was easy to feel sorry for the man who won a season ticket for next season, in the half-time competition. Laughter and ironic cheers could be heard as the prize was announced.
The boys in claret and blue came out for the second half, it couldn’t really be much worse than the flat performance in the first. A sensational save from Pepe Reina kept the Villa in the game, and with the departure of Danny Drinkwater, they began looking in much better shape.
Douglas Luiz lashed a shot into the roof of the net, and a weight was lifted from the Villa faithful, as Luiz added his weight on top of a few fans after crowd surfing in the Holte End. A nervy final 20 minutes then ensued, with Jack Grealish trying to take on the entire Watford team on his own multiple times.
When the points seemed destined to be shared, Pepe Reina played a perfect ball into the box with seconds to spare. Tyrone Mings struggled to control the ball, and it fell to Ezri Konsa. Then it was limbs everywhere as the ball flew into the back of the net past Ben Foster.
Should the goal be Mings’ or Konsa’s? Who cares? It could be the biggest goal at Villa Park this season. A huge three points for the Villa, and a move out of the relegation zone at a pivotal time to the dizzying heights of 16th place.
Of course, it also was nice to see Troy Deeney’s jeering at the Holte End come back to bite him.
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Pepe Reina – 7.5
At about 55 minutes in, Pepe Reina was probably thinking ‘what on earth have I joined here?’ The Spaniard kept Villa in the game with a brilliant save off Troy Deeney at 0-1. However, the most impressive part of his game is his distribution, it is fantastic.
It makes a world of difference having a goalkeeper that can put a long pass on a dime to one of the wing-backs, or someone in midfield. 82% pass completion is astronomically higher than either Heaton or Nyland have managed so far this season. It really shows, as Reina provides a calm presence that isn’t rushed or easily pressured on the ball.
Frederic Guilbert – 6.5
Fred Guilbert failed to pick up an open Deeney for the Watford goal, but other than that, the Frenchman had a decent game. He made a number of interceptions to cut out Watford attacks, and though his crossing left a little to be desired, he offered a good option on the attack with his desire to get forward.
Ezri Konsa – 7.5
Much like Guilbert, Ezri Konsa failed to pick up Deeney for the opener, and he was beaten in the air by the Watford forward a few too many times. However, the 22-year-old more than made up for any mistakes with his contribution to the winner, a moment that Villa fans won’t forget in a hurry. His passing was also good, and there was rarely a moment when he looked panicked and made a rash decision.
Tyrone Mings – 7
Watford fans have made the ludicrous suggestion that Tyrone Mings should have been sent off for hand ball late before the Villa winner. It wouldn’t have surprised me if Martin Atkinson had done just that. He seemed much more interested in having a nice chat with the Watford players, rather than sort out their blatant time wasting.
Thankfully sanity prevailed, and Mings was there to deflect home the deciding goal. Yet again his leadership skills were invaluable, and at times his role in the team again resembled more of an American Football quarterback than a centre-half, as he pinged long passes left and right.
Kortney Hause – 7
A much-improved Kortney Hause showed much less of the clumsiness that was evident at the AMEX. His passing was a darn sight better than usual and his physicality and aerial ability were immense once again. Once he can consistently perform more at this level, Hause will be a top ‘no-nonsense’ centre-back.
Matt Targett – 7
Matt Targett was certainly a frustrating watch in the first half, as every cross he attempted was way off target or straight at the first man. However, once the rest of the team started to improve, so did Targett.
His attempt on goal created the equaliser, and his ability to whip in a cross makes him a dangerous threat down the left. The ex-Southampton man also didn’t spend any of the game down injured, progress.
Danny Drinkwater – 5
It’s clear Danny Drinkwater isn’t quite up to speed at the moment. Currently, it’s like having a milk float trundling around the centre of the park, apart from a milk float has a better turning circle.
Joking aside, the team started playing much better once Douglas Luiz came on for Drinkwater, much like at Brighton. Apart from the ability to occasionally stick a foot in and bring composure to the midfield at times, the former England international will hope he can rebuild his footballing reputation sooner rather than later.
Marvelous Nakamba – 7.5
Considering Marvelous Nakamba was having to control the midfield essentially on his own in the first half, the 26-year-old did a remarkable job. He recycled the ball well, and nipped in to make tackles and win the ball more often than he lost it. His effort was first rate, and it didn’t dwindle at all in the 90 minutes.
Trezeguet – 6.5
A frustrating evening for Trezeguet ended with the Egyptian being taken off for Indiana Vassilev. You can’t fault his effort, but the quality and end product just weren’t there. At times he was the only Villa player moving off the ball and trying to get them moving in the right direction, but once more, all of his crosses into the box had no one to meet them.
Anwar El Ghazi – 6
Anwar El Ghazi was frustrating to watch for the most part. The runs he was making were very much those of a winger as he drifted out wide and in behind the full backs. This left no one in the box for the entirety of the first half. The most he could muster up to threaten the Watford goal was a shot over the bar. Hopefully Samatta joining can allow El Ghazi to return to more familiar surroundings on the wing.
Jack Grealish © – 7.5
For most of the game, Jack Grealish was the bright spark yet again. The Villa skipper took it upon himself to drive the Villa forward whenever he could. Despite his usual quality however, at time super Jack tried to force the play a bit too much, and so played some loose passes and tried to take on a few too many Watford players.
Nigel Pearson clearly had a plan for Grealish, crowd him out, and for the most part it worked. When he did get free though, he caused problems a plenty for the Watford back line.
Off the Bench
Douglas Luiz (55) – 7.5
Douglas Luiz changed the game, much like the Brazilian did at brighton. He added attacking mentality to the midfield, and his great range of passing was on show. His finish for the goal was pinpoint, and it had to be to beat a scrabbling Ben Foster. It was also great to see the passion he showed after scoring when he threw himself head first into the Holte, a yellow card worth picking up.
Indiana Vassilev (76) – 7
Despite only touching the ball seven times, Indiana Vassilev had a great impact on the way Villa played. He provided much needed movement up front, and a focal point for the attack. If he keeps his high energy levels, then this certainly won’t be Indiana’s last crusade at Villa Park.
Dean Smith – 6.5
Dean Smith made a questionable decision in not changing the XI from that which underwhelmed at Brighton. Danny Drinkwater clearly isn’t ready for a full start and Indiana Vassilev should have perhaps been given a chance to show his worth up front.
Ezri Konsa spoke after the game of an ‘argument’ with Mings in the changing room at half-time, this seemed to have got the players fired up and got them playing.
Smith’s changes were slow to come, but were the right ones. There’s fight in this team somewhere, Deano just needs to get it out of them more often.
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