Despite six of the players only recently returning from international duties around the world, Dean Smith named an unchanged XI to take on Brighton & Hove Albion at Villa Park – his sides first three o’clock kick-off of the season.
After dismantling Arsenal before the international break, most Villa fans (myself included) were expecting another trio of points against a ‘struggling’ Brighton team. The reason I’m hesitant to call Brighton a struggling team now is because, as Match of the Day pundits Ian Wright and Alan Shearer were quick to point out, the stats posted by of our opponents in this budding Premier League season tell a different story to the results being accumulated by Potter’s men.
Nonetheless, most people expected three points to remain in the Midlands. From the first whistle, it looked like it would stay that way.
Jack Grealish (of all people) won a free kick in a dangerous area, shortly into proceedings. From what looked like an ideal opportunity to strike early and take the lead, the dead ball situation was, in hindsight, a poisoned chalice.
No sooner had the ball been headed away by the first man, Ross Barkley was on the turf clutching at his hamstring. Smith was forced into the substitution and on came summer signing Bertrand Traoré, in a rather unfamiliar central role with Grealish remaining out wide.
This substitution speaks volumes about the need to strengthen reinforcements to look to on the sidelines. Frankly, the position Conor Hourihane finds himself in now is a difficult one, to say the least. Smith opted to play a man out of position rather than make an almost straight swap and bring the Irishman on.
With just over ten minutes on the clock, the Villa game plan was on show for all to see. Retain possession of the ball and restrict Brighton to their own half. Notably, even the defensive line was forever advancing towards Matthew Ryan’s goal, leaving Villa ever more vulnerable from a ball over the top.
Brighton take the lead
Against the run of play, Brighton took the lead twelve minutes in. The goal came from exactly what Villa fans up and down the country had no doubt been warning off. A poke forward from Afam Lallana evaded the back four and Danny Welbeck was through on goal, after picking the ball up well within his own half.
Defensive naivety cost Villa the opener and for their positive start, they found themselves playing catch-up.
For the rest of the half, Villa continued to create chances without ever having the finishing touch to level the scoreline.
Trézéguet managed to miss two shots, central, and within ten yards of the goal before Traoré saw a good effort saved at the near post by Ryan.
Elsewhere in the half, Tyrone Mings met a Grealish delivery in an unorthodox fashion, calling on the Australian keeper to volley the ball off the goal line.
Ben White also came to his sides rescue when he took the ball away from Ollie Watkins via a perfectly timed sliding challenge.
Lions come out roaring
Shy over sixty seconds into the second half and Ezri Konsa levelled the match. Replicating the goal his centre-back partner scored at Fulham, he connected with Traoré’s delivery to send the ball hurtling past a helpless Ryan.
The game became all the more expansive now as both teams pushed for the lead. However, Brighton were simply more clinical and scored as Solly March curled home an effort after Pascal Groß cut the ball across the Villa penalty box.
Late drama was still to come through, as Albion full-back, Tariq Lamptey, received two bookings in quick succession. From the resulting free-kick, Hourihane failed to beat the frontman and the ball was headed into Grealish’s path. He then found Trézéguet, and touching the ball inside the onrushing March, received a boot to the shins and dropped to the floor in agony.
Referee Michael Oliver didn’t hesitate in pointing to the spot, giving Villa a lifeline, in the third minute of added time.
VAR has the final say
As is nowadays customary, VAR reviewed the footage, which showed clear contact felt by the Egyptian.
In their best efforts to ruin the game, VAR instructed the referee to re-watch the incident again, looking for a clear and obvious error in his judgement. To the bewilderment of all who were watching on, he miraculously decided that it was a fair tackle, as March had touched an inch of the ball – deeming the follow through inflicted on Trézéguet irrelevant!
With the ball given to Brighton, Villa’s hopes were up. The match finished 1-2, and Villa wondering what could’ve been.
Whilst this result may ground any talks of European football anytime soon, the result was perhaps a reminder to Villa players of the necessity to take chances on goal when given the opportunity.
Dean Smith takes Villa to the London Stadium next week, not many months on from securing Premier League status on that very ground.