After a first half that largely lived up to our expectations of mind-numbing dullness, Aston Villa came out a different side in the second half and put together a fantastic performance that led to an emphatic and well deserved 4-1 win. The four goals were the most Villa have scored in a single game this season in any competition and the margin of victory is equaled only by the opening day 3-0 win over West Ham. The win sent Villa ahead of Blackburn into 12th place, put them equal with 10th place Everton and 11th place Stoke City on points and just four points shy of 7th place Bolton, the next team they will face in league play. It was a massive three points and almost as important as the win was the decisiveness with which it was earned; if there was an undeserved goal in the game it belonged to Blackburn and the dominance of Villa for the final 45 minutes (or perhaps more accurately the final hour) of the game was apparent to anyone paying even a cursory amount of attention.
It is of course important to note that Blackburn are not an especially good team, and away from home they're bordering on actively terrible. Rovers haven't won a game away from Ewood Park since December 28th. On the season they've managed to take all of ten points on the road and have a goal difference of -17. (In the interest of full disclosure, Aston Villa have taken the same number of points and have a goal difference of -18. But that's irrelevant, because I'm making fun of Blackburn right now. I will resume making fun of Aston Villa in the very near future, of that I am sure.) Blackburn are a team Villa should be expected to beat, but even the most skeptical amongst us must admit that to beat any team so soundly is encouraging. Good teams should play poor teams off the pitch. This is obviously not proof that Villa are currently a good team, but it's evidence that they're heading in the right direction. And after the first two-thirds of the season that's something we should all be thrilled to see.
From the outset, Blackburn looked-shockingly-to be playing for a draw, Roque Santa Cruz isolated up top in a 4--5-1 with what appeared to be two purely holding midfielders. There wasn't a great deal of difference in terms of the shape employed by Villa and Blackburn, but there was most certainly a difference in the approach. Villa came out looking to attack, but to Blackburn's credit they weren't able to do much for the majority of the first half and frustration was clearly beginning to settle in. Villa bring danger in the attack in two ways; either on the counter (impossible to do when your opponent has shown zero interest in pushing forward) or by drawing the defense to the wings and opening up space in the box for the cross (difficult to do when your opponent is playing with what amounts to six defenders.) Villa were the better side in the first half and began to control the proceedings the last fifteen minutes or so, but even with their quality showing it felt very much like a game that was destined to end 0-0.
Thank goodness then for Keith Andrews. The Blackburn defenders bizarre decision to haul Ashley Young down in the box that followed his equally bizarre decision to try and turn upfield rather than clear the ball which gifted Young possession resulted in Villa being awarded a penalty which Young converted easily. The 'goals change games' cliche can be annoying, but it's difficult to argue with especially after a game such as this one. Blackburn were forced to shift the emphasis and look to attack, which opened things up a bit and allowed Villa to show a bit more fluidity going forward. Things opened up even more when Marc Albrighton's cross/shot deflected in off of Grant Hanley, forcing Steve Kean to swap one of Blackburn's holding mids for another striker. With Blackburn pouring forward, Villa pounced just two minutes later and Stewart Downing scored a brilliant goal on the counter. After the first 45 minutes this looked like a slow grinder with very little potential for scoring from either side; 63 minutes in, Villa were ahead 3-0.
Blackburn continued to press forward, but the defense was beyond equal to the task and if either team looked more likely to score again it was Villa. While it's largely inconsequential then, it is something of a shame that Nikola Kalinic's desperate shot took a flukeish deflection off the foot of Richard Dunne and into the net. There really was nothing that could have been done by anyone in a claret and blue shirt; Dunne did what he was supposed to do and got a touch on the ball, but unfortunately for him his touch caused the ball to move in a way that no keeper on Earth could get a handle on and Rovers were on the board. Any hope of a comeback was dashed within a minute however, as Ashley Young found himself completely unmarked in the center of the area and drilled an emphatic one-time shot past Paul Robinson.
In the end, Villa got an absolutely crucial win and though they're five points above the drop they've put enough teams between themselves and the relegation zone that any realistic fears of going down are likely becoming a thing of the past. This was largely the team I think most of us have been waiting for since Darren Bent came to Villa Park; even Villa's quality wins this season have largely been the result of superb defensive efforts and fortuitous goals. This was different. This was Villa taking a game by the reigns and dictating the pace and style. They won, and they looked good doing it.
- Darren Bent didn't score, but his presence played a huge part in goals number three and four. Stewart Downing was given far too much space as both Rovers defenders in position to stop him gravitated towards Bent. Ashley Young had a good five feet of space almost directly in line with the post and a wide open net due to Bent's position on the opposite side of the box. It goes without saying that Darren Bent is a slightly more imposing figure than Emile Heskey.
- Speaking of Emile Heskey, when he's not playing a whole lot and Villa are winning decisively his open-net misses go from being infuriating to adorable.
- This switching-wings business seems to have gotten a whole lot less controversial the past few weeks.
- I know the referees hands were tied and that maybe a week off will be good for him, but I can't imagine I was alone in wishing Ryan Nelsen could have been let off with a warning after his last-man challenge on Ashley Young. The Christchurch, New Zealand native has had an unimaginably difficult week and as he walked off the pitch after his second yellow in injury time it was difficult not to feel for him.
- It would appear as though Robert Pires is not worthless after all, which is just as surprising to me as it is to you. I'm not going to go nuts; it was one game against a poor opponent. But credit has to go where it is due, and Robert Pires was very, very good. I still don't want him getting a lot of time and I certainly do not want to see him starting against higher-level competition, but he clearly has something left to offer.
- Makeshift left back Nathan Baker was replaced by even more makeshift left back Fabian Delph after picking up a knock about half an hour in, and I have to say, I thought Delph played pretty damned well given the circumstances. I can't imagine the youngster would be receptive to the idea, but is it crazy to think he would actually make a decent attacking left back? It's certainly not something that could happen right away, but with the lack of depth Villa have at the position and Delph's skill set, it has some appeal to me. (In reality I think he'd be a fantastic LWB in a 3-4-3, but I don't much think that's going to be happening any time soon.)
- This game happened without Jean Makoun. Just thought I'd throw that out there.
Bolton are next in the league and that actually looks to be an entertaining fixture, but before that Villa will have the less than pleasant task of traveling to the Eastlands to face Manchester City in the 5th Round of the FA Cup. With some team that wears blue and are currently well out of the top eight somehow managing to win the Carling Cup this afternoon, the FA Cup remains Villa's only realistic shot at European competition next season. I don't need to remind you what happened last time Villa met Manchester City, but I probably don't need to remind you what happened the least time Villa played Manchester City at the Eastlands either. This was an encouraging win and all, but let's just say I think the odds of us getting carried away for too awfully long are slim.