Aston Villa hit the ground running against Blackburn this afternoon, having Rovers up against the ropes from the opening whistle and up by a goal by the 12th minute. They'd add another before the half hour mark and threaten on plenty of other occasions before the break, but as was so often the case last season the safe focus wasn't there at the start of the second frame and Blackburn cut the lead in half in the 52nd minute. The goal seemed to wake Villa up a bit however, and Darren Bent put it to rest in the 67th. It was a strong performance from Villa but it can't be emphasized enough how terrible Blackburn were on the day, and a few mistakes likely would have gone punished by a more competent side. Still, good teams dominate poor opponents and Villa were most certainly dominant..
Gabriel Agbonlahor kicked off the scoring, racing down the left to find an angle towards the box, making a few nifty moves to find some space and curling in a marvelous effort from a tight angle to put Villa on the board. Emile Heskey got the second, drilling a low shot from outside the box through a crowded area and past a diving Paul Robinson. And while it may sound shocking to hear that Heskey scored a goal without the use of his head and from 20 yards out, it should be noted that he still managed to fall down in the process of doing so. It was more of the same the rest of the way with Villa heading into the half 60% of the possession and a nice lead to show for it.
The second half started in less than encouraging fashion. Blackburn looked the better side in the early going, and David Hoilett made a brilliant run around and through no fewer than four Aston Villa defenders before sending in a cross that found an on-rushing Morten Gamst Pedersen. It felt eerily similar to all the dropped-points games from last season, but something remarkable happened; instead of completely collapsing into a heap of dysfunctional misery, the team seemed to regain focus. The defense, which had looked so poor in allowing Blackburn's goal, would not show anything approaching that level of disorganization again. The midfield, which had gotten a bit sloppy, regained their edge. Any momentum Blackburn gained from the goal didn't last long, and just 15 minutes later Bent latched onto a loose ball in the area and sent in a cool left footed finish to put it out of reach. Encouragingly, Villa didn't stop pressing until very late in the game. Blackburn had another opportunity or two but they were dealt with well by the defense, and it was a very brief period of time the entire game where it seemed as though Villa were in any danger of not taking all three points.
Things weren't universally great, however. Alex McLeish was forced to use all three of his substitutions by the 66th minute, presumably all because of injury. Gabbby Agbonlahor, who was so brilliant in the first half, was withdrawn for Marc Albrighton after taking a knock in a collision with Paul Robinson. Ciaran Clark was brought on for Luke Young in the 56th minute which forced Stephen Warnock to shift to the right back position. Emile Heskey departed for Barry Bannan in the 66th. Despite Blackburn's more aesthetically pleasant approach under Steve Kean, they'll still kick the crap out of you. Hopefully none of the injuries are too serious, because the last thing this team can afford is a repeat of the early injury struggles of last season and the death spiral that followed.
- Gabriel Agbonlahor really was fantastic in the first half, and for the first time that I can remember he really looked at home on the wing. I still think he's better utilized playing behind Bent in a free role where he can explore space wherever it's available, but if he is going to play out wide we should hope that what we saw today was an indication of his real ability.
- I'd love to sing the praises of Shay Given, but he didn't have to do a damned thing. I'm okay with that.
- Darren Bent is offside a whole hell of a lot, but when he isn't he usually scores. Like today! (Except he was offside, but oh well. He's still awesome.)
- Charles N'Zogbia has yet to really make much of an impact, but in watching him it's clear he's still getting used to his teammates and easing his way into the side. In terms of individual skill, he looks absolutely brilliant and when he gets comfortable I honestly believe that we aren't going to miss Stewart Downing much at all.
- Every time Ciaran Clark is on the field for an extended period of time I wonder why he isn't on the field all of the time.
- Every time Barry Bannan is on the field for an extended period of time I wonder why he isn't on the field all of the time.
- Fabian Delph is apparently the exact player I was hoping he would be. He makes good decisions with the ball, gets into space well and crucially he is a beast in the defensive phase. He makes some tackles I'd prefer he didn't, but he'll learn. Or not. At this point I will take what I can get.
- At the risk of harshing the above mellow, Stiliyan Petrov is terrible and why he is playing while Jean Makoun sits on his ass (and there are rumors of his being loaned to Olympiakos) makes me want to scream. I like you so far, McLeish; don't muck this up.
So, a good way to start the home campaign and good to get three points at the start of this run of games. Where last season was somewhat backloaded in terms of games Villa expected to win, this season it's the opposite. The next time Villa look to be serious underdogs is October 16th against Manchester City and there are several games where less than three points would likely be a bit of a disappointment between now and then. There's a lot to like about these first two games.