Magic of the Cup, as plucky strugglers down top of the table Bournemouth
No apologies here for an extensive revelling in a Villa win that featured two goals, avoided the media hyped ‘giant-killing' and defied more than a few pre-match predictions, including those of our very own Robert Lintott and Jack Grimse on the Holtecast!
Villans were apprehensive about a Cup tie against high-flying Bournemouth who lead the Championship at the moment by means of scoring hatfuls of goals. The Cherries have scored 57 in the league so far this season, including an 8-0 victory against Birmingham which led to the cringe-inducing statistic that they´d scored more goals in Birmingham than Villa this season.
However positivity crept in before the game with the announcement that Fabian Delph had signed a new four and a half year contract, which was made on the big screen inside Villa Park. Another player or a different situation in the League and the hype might have seemed silly, but the news was so unexpected and had been kept so under wraps that it felt as good as a new signing.
That fragile optimism came under pressure in the first-half. Paul Lambert's selection of a 4-4-2 with a midfield diamond, with Carles Gil at the tip, Leandro Bacuna out right and Kieran Richardson coming in at left-back for Aly Cissokho seemed like a reasonable stab at solving Villa´s lack of width and creativity. However even a Bournemouth side with nine changes looked more potent in attack - Carlos Sánchez was caught several times upfield and midfield runners sliced through his space at the base of the diamond. Eunan O'Kane had a run and a shot that forced a fingertip save from Shay Given who showed his continued value, and a clever flick played in Harry Arter behind the Villa defence, who managed to round Given but Kieran Richardson cleared off the line.
The Claret and Blues struggles were strongly linked to those of Christian Benteke, who again looked uninterested in any ball further than 6 inches from him. It was noticeable that the best Villa chance in the half came instead from Andreas Weimann, after Alan Hutton overlapped Bacuna and found a darting run and header from the Austrian that flashed narrowly wide. It wasn´t much to cheer about compared to more than 6,000 travelling Bournemouth fans who were shaking the stands.
The boos rained down at half-time and the atmosphere was drearily familiar at Villa Park but Carles Gil changed the script. Little more than neat in the first-half, in the 51st minute he drifted out wide on the right, cut in and curled a stunner into the top-corner. The curve of the ball was mathematical perfection, bending impossibly far around the keeper before snapping back in line with the goal as if on an invisible tether.
The image of perfection inspired the men in Claret and Blue whose play sharpened, with Tom Cleverley having his best half for a long while and spreading the ball around and forwards, while Weimann buzzed around at his energetic best. To their credit Bournemouth never fell away completely but the scent of an upset began to waft away.
Villa helped themselves with a great team goal. Bacuna curled a fine ball into the path of the overlapping Hutton and this time the cut-back found Andi Weimann in a deadly mood, opening his body and slotting the ball into the corner with his left foot.
That 2 goal lead proved itself invaluable as Bournemouth worked themselves back into the match, fended off by the Clark-Okore partnership, which may not quite function like clockwork but makes up for it in strength and bustle. The Championship side´s pressure eventually told, as Callum Wilson got ahead of the Villa defence to flick in a ball from the wing but the Villans saw out the rest of the match and should have scored when Benteke made his most meaningful pass of the match to release Ashley Westwood through the middle to be denied by a fine save.
Conclusions - a ray of hope for the rest of the season
A match that could have shattered what little remained of optimism around Villa Park instead added to it greatly. Yes, this is a match that on paper Villa should be winning every time and arguably more convincingly than by one goal. But there are factors that make this seem significant:
1. Villa scored two goals. That seemed frankly impossible before the match but Carles Gil and Andi Weimann showed us that it really doesn't have to be so complicated. This was a win that was earned rather than stolen.
2. Bournemouth are a good side. The Championship is fiercely competitive and the Cherries are top through real attacking quality. This was a statement that Villa are still a Premiership level team- a loss would have had some very negative symbolism.
Were Christian Benteke to find his motivation and scoring touch again, this Villa side would easily look top-half quality. There are a few big matches coming up that would provide the perfect stage. In the meantime , the Cup draw today will be very interesting - the Baggies at home please!