As is the case for most Villa fans this week, I am still revelling in our second league win of the season, which came on Tuesday night against Crystal Palace. I think that we all deserve to enjoy the rarity that is a home win against a side very much in form and typically good away from home. For me, the most pleasing aspect of that win was undoubtedly the performance of our usually unreliable defence.
Before the game, I was concerned about how we would fare at the back. After all, our defending leading up to Tuesday night had done little to fill fans with confidence. Sunderland’s third goal in our previous league game should be shown to aspiring footballers across the globe in a DVD entitled ‘How not to defend’. It’s so ridiculously appalling that it really does make you wonder whether you’re watching Premier League or Sunday League football. In any case, it made for difficult viewing.
I therefore couldn’t help but think that Wilfred Zaha and Bakary Sako would have the better of our two full backs Leandro Bacuna and the returning Aly Cissokho. However, barring a scare after twenty seconds when Zaha struck the post and the occasional threat, I could not have been more wrong.
Bacuna had his best game of the season in an Aston Villa shirt. He offered his usual threat going forward, desperate to cross the ball in to the danger area, but he demonstrated a desire to win the ball defensively that I that I didn’t know he had in him. He wanted it more than the Eagles, getting his shorts dirty for once and battling for the ball. It was great to see.
On the other wing, Cissokho had a very solid game, staking his claim to be the starting left back for the rest of the season. He’s a rare breed of full back: an actual defender who reluctantly goes forward rather than the other way around. Having said that, it was his low driven cross that was cleared for that all important corner midway through the second half. Whilst he does often look uncomfortable with the ball, he is miles ahead of Kieran Richardson, who set new records for incompetence at the back end of 2015.
At the heart of the defence, Lescott and Okore looked very comfortable. The captain, particularly, had something to prove after he was given a frosty reception prior to kick-off. Although his header won’t be shortlisted for goal of the month, the way he rose and powered it towards Hennessey showed how much he wanted to win that night. Mark Bunn didn’t have much to do in goal, it has to be said, but exuded confidence and looked very much like a seasoned Premier League goalkeeper.
After Hennessey’s blunder gave us the lead, there was still more than half an hour to play and we never really looked threatened. Anything that was sent our way was swiftly dealt with and, whilst there were no last minute heroics, no last gasp sliding tackles or goal line clearances, the way our back four defended was nothing short of superb. It was gutsy, gritty football on a cold, wet Tuesday night and it was brilliant to see. In this sense, the fact that we were, predictably, last on ‘Match of the Day’ should be seen as a compliment to our back four. They made the last twenty minutes of the match very forgettable by doing their jobs well.
The Villa defenders will certainly have their hands full against Leicester with Vardy, Mahrez, Okazaki and Ulloa to name but a few. The Foxes’ new signing, former Birmingham City winger Demarai Gray, will also be keen to make an impact. I would be very surprised if Garde named a changed back four this afternoon after Tuesday’s courageous display and I’m hoping that the defenders will carry the momentum gained into what will most likely be a more challenging afternoon for them.