With the uproar over the pitch invasion taking up most of the narrative, it has been easy to forget that Aston Villa won an absolutely fantastic match of football on Saturday. What's more is that the win came against all odds in a match that saw them start with an absolutely dire first half. Let's actually take a look at the match, why don't we? You have my word that from here on out there will be no mention of invasions of any sort.
Coming into the match, West Bromwich Albion had only one win in their past seventeen appearances at Villa Park. That 30-year win tally seemed quite likely to be added to, as the Villa defense was an absolute shambles and Christian Benteke was out with a late hip injury. Lewis Kinsella was the only real defensive cover available on the bench for the day, and while he may be a great prospect, giving him his first senior minutes in an FA Cup derby seemed like a recipe for disaster.
To counterbalance Villa's woeful state, the Baggies were largely healthy and newly motivated after having lost on Tuesday. Tony Pulis did make the odd decision to start four centre backs in his back four, but Craig Dawson and Joleon Lescott (playing on the right and left sides, respectively) ended up being very adept wing backs. It was immediately apparent from the whistle that West Brom had something to prove and they forced a Villa clearance within the first minute.
Strangely, for a team with no true wingers, the Baggies decided to run most of their attacks down the flanks. On their right that actually made sense, as they were going against Matthew Lowton playing out of position. After they tested him a few times, he had shown himself mistake prone and so the pressure built. Luckily, Lowton shored up his match after starting it with maybe the worst fifteen minutes of his career. I'm inclined not to be overly harsh on Lowton, though, as left back is not natural for him at all. Combine that with the fact that he ended up being solid on the day and I'm finding myself gaining confidence in this weird little injury-forced experiment.
Brown Ideye had a eighth minute chance (started by a pass that got past Lowton) that he should have hit home, but he somehow missed from six yards out. It was the Baggies best real chance of the first half, though, and while they kept the pressure on, the defense held stout. Really, Ciaran Clark held stout, as he had another absolutely fantastic day. He seemed eager to challenge for the ball at every opportunity and his positioning was perfect. Jores Okore has a lot of raw talent, but many of his errors that we've seen lately have come down to finding himself in the wrong spot on the pitch. Clark never seems to have that issue, and that is what is making him a leading candidate to be Villa's player of the year.
On the attack, Villa just couldn't get anything started. Charles N'Zogbia continued his renaissance and was assisted a lot by Tom Cleverley (in the 14th minute Cleverley made an overlapping run with N'Zogbia and I'm fairly certain the universe tore apart a bit). Fabian Delph tried a bit too hard at times, and Scott Sinclair was largely absent for the first 43 minutes. This seemed a lot like a Lambert squad: lots of possession with no intent to attack. A lot of that was likely down to the fact that, when they got back, West Brom's back four played like what they really were: four centre backs. They were nearly impenetrable, and it's hard to fault Villa too much. This was more a good defensive performance than a terrible offensive one.
In the second half, though, things changed entirely. Aston Villa came out looking like an entirely different team. Within the first minute, they had put the ball into the West Brom box, and though it was ineffective, it was the sort of chance they weren't getting or taking in the first half. And within ninety seconds, the largely absent Sinclair was already making blazing runs down the left side. (Side note: Sinclair is fast. Incredibly so. Looks a bit like Gabby at his best.)
And then it broke open. A 50th-minute throw-in from deep in the Villa half was made by Leandro Bacuna. Gabby Agbonlahor won the aerial challenge for the ball and headed it on to N'Zogbia, who started to sprint up the right. Scott Sinclair came from the left side towards the right to make himself available, but in doing so he pulled defenders. Fabian Delph, near the center, saw the chance and calmly drifted out to the left, and received a lovely pass from N'Zogbia. With no defender within ten yards, Delph had the time to set up, take a huge stride, and calmly place the ball past Boaz Myhill into the net. It was a goal that was made possible entirely because of Sinclair's run and Delph's awareness of the space that was opened as a result.
One great chance, one goal. And Aston Villa wouldn't look back. West Brom did fight back a bit in the next couple of minutes, though. Within five minutes of the goal, the Baggies had three superb chances, but the Villa back line had cleaned up any sloppy play from the first half. The biggest of the three was Joleon Lescott's header off of a West Brom corner, which the defender hit with power and luckily a few inches wide.
I'll take a quick moment to note that Shay Given had an excellent match. I've seen a few people on twitter suggest that perhaps he should take over first-choice duties from Brad Guzan, and while I don't necessarily agree, I wouldn't be livid if it happened. Given still has great reflexes, and though his time off the line is a little bit slow, he's hardly a liability at this point.
After about the sixty-fifth minute, it became pretty clear that the first and second half roles had reversed. Villa were commanding the match and West Brom were struggling to create chances. In the 65th, Tim Sherwood took off Tom Cleverley (who had another very solid day) for Carlos Sánchez. The sub added some stiffness in the Villa defense as West Brom looked to attack more, and Sánchez had a strong day cleaning up balls around the box just as we'd expect.
Sometime around the 70th minute, Scott Sinclair decided that he wanted to go from being involved in the match to being a hero. He began making runs that looked like Gabby Agbonlahor at his best and was constantly creating great chances. It seemed only a matter of time before something came of it, and it finally did in the 85th minute.
The goal came off of a superb counter started by Jack Grealish. He was quickly joined by Sinclair, who received a pass near the edge of the box and had enough time to dance around a bit with the ball and set up the cool, calm, goal. That's his third in four appearances.
Before the second goal, however, came one of the worst refereeing decisions we've seen this year. Claudio Yacob was given a second yellow for... um... tackling Leandro Bacuna? Bacuna was on the ground and Yacob came running in, but stopped before touching Bacuna. There was no contact and Yacob hopped over Bacuna. Shortly after, in the 92nd minute, Jack Grealish got a second yellow for a dive that certainly wasn't one. Referee Anthony Taylor had been having a decent day, but those two reds are absolutely inexplicable. If the FA is looking for anything to investigate, they might want to start there.
But let's not let anything mar what happened today. Villa played some of the best football they have in ages. In the first half they were stymied by a tough West Brom defense, and in the second half they made the appropriate adjustments and went on to dominate. Charles N'Zogbia, Tom Cleverley, and Scott Sinclair are all re-making themselves under Tim Sherwood, and with all of the injuries and suspensions facing Villa right now, they couldn't have picked a better time. Thanks to an outstanding effort, Villa are headed to Wembley in the FA Cup semi-finals. And it feels amazing.
If this group can stop getting injured and play as they did on Saturday, this weekend's match at Sunderland could be a third consecutive win. You can already tell that the atmosphere around the club (both with the players and fans) has changed dramatically. Whereas relegation felt certain after the Hull City match, it now seems very very avoidable. And for now, I'll leave you with this, an animated representation of how I imagine we all feel right now: