By a thread, Aston Villa’s hopes of Premier League survival remain intact despite claiming their first top-flight victory in ten attempts. Does it signal a turning point for Villa or more false hope?
A crucial win over Crystal Palace was a must for a Villa side seemingly bereft of belief and confidence having suffered since the restart of the Premier League. Not since 2014 had Villa claimed a top-flight win on a Sunday and with club records looming for all the wrong reasons, Dean Smith’s side had more than pride to play for… and they still do.
Smith won’t be looking any further than Thursday night with a “semi-final second leg” at Goodison Park another 90 minutes of paramount importance to survival, but whilst you’re only as good as your last game, Villa find themselves with an unfamiliar wave of optimism.
None more so than Trezeguet, Villa’s forwards were energetic, dynamic and most importantly clinical in a final third so seldomly exploited in weeks past. Having fallen to a heavy defeat at the hands of a vastly-improved Manchester United side in the week, neither of Villa’s forwards or midfielders had scored a single goal in nine consecutive games for the first time in 25 years before welcoming Palace on Sunday.
Ally Mbwana Samatta is enduring his longest goal drought for over two years and without a Premier League goal to his name, Keinan Davis is also short of confidence in front of goal. What will encourage Smith however, is an evident creative and enthused spark that Jack Grealish, Trezeguet and Conor Hourihane provided – even John McGinn was bursting back into the box to make up the numbers.
From back to front Villa were committed and assured, both structured and silky and a couple of key individuals’ consistent and much improved performances have been pivotal.
Douglas Luiz excellent again
He can be excused for a couple of rusty displays before project restart got underway with consistency possibly to blame and language issues too a problem, but Villa fans can omit the odd performance for a player with bags of potential to perform at the highest level of European football.
Deployed as a deeper-sitting midfielder, Luiz has brought comfort and confidence to complement his terrier-like defensive style. He’s starting to identify as a proper, all-action South American midfielder and Pep Guardiola’s rave reviews weren’t inaccurate.
Back in February, Smith hung out various of his first-team players to dry for lacking the quality and belief to get a result at Southampton. He suggested he has far too many “training ground players” in the dressing room – and Douglas Luiz may well have been one. Without fans and with a long break behind him to concentrate on life away from the football pitch, Luiz has thrived ever since.
Luiz recently passed a statutory English exam because of his works visa and coupled with adding a familiarity to Villa’s midfield, his presence in the middle of Villa Park has become a real highlight this season.
Villa boss Smith also acknowledged Luiz’s improved communication between his teammates.
He explained: “He needed to understand his teammates a lot more, I don’t just mean in English, I mean the type of passes they want to receive from him and where they like him to be.
“Football is about relationships on the pitch and knowing one another, strengths and weaknesses, he needed to get to know the players more.
“The language has helped that. But the break has also helped him become a fitter player.
“What gets forgotten is he walked in the door two days before the Tottenham game at the start of the season.
“There wasn’t an awful lot of pre-season Douglas had with us. Now he’s got a really good understanding of what we are about.
Luiz hadn’t played in England despite signing for City in 2017 until starting at the all-new, grand-spanking Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in Villa’s first game back in the top-flight. John McGinn confessed that he couldn’t understand his midfielder partner for over half the season.
“I played with Douglas Luiz for the first half of the season before I got injured and he genuinely couldn’t understand a word I said,” McGinn told the Daily Record.
“I don’t know if he spent the lockdown with his tutor online but fair play to him because it helps so much when he can understand ‘man on!’
“I don’t think they know what ‘man on’ is in Brazil.
“There were a lot of players all from different leagues and countries kind of flung together and because of the money that was spent, people just expected us to gel instantly. But it really doesn’t work like that, especially in a league where you get punished for making mistakes.”
Villa have been the architects of their own downfall more times than any other side in the Premier League this season having conceded 11 goals from individual errors, and before the league suspended for a couple of months, Pepe Reina was to blame for a couple of mistakes of his own at St Mary’s and the King Power Stadium.
Reina out to prove a point
The Spaniard, on loan from AC Milan has grown into the number one shirt having replaced Orjan Nyland after a couple of dodgy games since the restart.
Whilst the echoes of players calling and bellowing orders is more audible than ever, Tyrone Mings and Pepe Reina are the most vocal in a Villa side who’ve lacked that sort of leadership since their last league win in January against Watford.
Important stops to prevent Christian Benteke on the stroke of half-time and Patrick Van Aanholt after Villa found a two goal cushion, allowed Villa to claim their sixth clean sheet of the campaign.
Not since 2007 have Villa kept more clean sheets at Villa Park having played 18 home games, and their defensive frailties seem to have been eased since the restart with goal scoring now the issue – a balance has been tough to find for Smith this season.
With crucial visits to Everton and West Ham coming up and a final home game against Arsenal too looming, Reina’s security and commanding influence may be the difference for Villa as they’re starting to see the rewards of pursuing the 37-year-old last January.
The run-in revisited
It’s been another rollercoaster matchweek with every side vying for Premier League safety winning by hook or by crook and for all the while, West Ham vs Watford is the fixture on the lips of every supporter of a relegation threatened club.
Meeting on Friday night, the result will have a major bearing on the final standings of the bottom three come August. Having been officially relegated last week, Norwich are down and out but Bournemouth refuse to give up.
Visits to Manchester City and Everton await Eddie Howe’s side either side of a tricky South Coast derby against away-day specialists Southampton. The Cherries remain three points adrift and a point better off than Villa.
Everton, Arsenal and West Ham are all to come for Villa who know if they can do their bit, they’ve got a chance of beating the drop even if slipping seven points behind Watford and West Ham at one stage seemingly put the nail in the coffin.
Watford will be thankful of recent tight home wins over Norwich and Newcastle, but their run-in spells danger for Nigel Pearson with Manchester City and Arsenal still to play after a huge game at West Ham at the end of the week.
West Ham know a win at Watford will all but secure their top-flight status, but without three points, a trip to high-flying Manchester United awaits before a final day showdown with Villa.
There’s only one way Villa can plot their way out of danger and it’s simply by concentrating on the next match, applying maximum effort and with that the minimum requirement, games against Everton and Arsenal might be decisive after all.
A West Ham side without the pressure of ‘winner takes all’ stakes may provide Villa with a greater chance of securing a win on the final day. However a loss against Watford throws the cat amongst the pigeons and potentially Villa amongst the Canaries in the Championship for next season with at least two wins from three required to ensure survival.