Trench warfare. A rather pugilistic way of describing yesterday’s evenings tremendous play-off semi-final victory over Middlesbrough, yet the only apt way of doing so. As Aston Villa clashed with Middlesbrough away at the Riverside Stadium, both teams surged through no-mans-land with their rushing bombardments.
While Boro are a Tony Pulis side, they are anything but a ‘Tony Pulis side’ and that is shown through their dynamic attack, which through a blitzkrieg of on-rushing wing-backs and wingers, always threatens to open up a team.
It was, however, through a Pulis trademark that Villa took the lead. A seemingly pre-planned set piece saw a charging Mile Jedinak launch forward into clear space, before launching a clean header into the goal, with no players marking him, nor on the posts to defend the ball.
Through George Friend, Adama Traore, Fabio and Stewart Downing, Boro threatened to create chances. However, Britt Assombalonga, up front, could only find the side-netting, the sky and Sam Johnstone.
Steve Bruce’s Villa, our boys in Claret & Blue, stood firm. Very much a mirror of the Derby County performance in a match a few weeks ago that signed off the home league campaign. A resounding, disciplined and steadfast performance by what amounted to a back-five of Mile Jedinak, James Chester, John Terry, Ahmed Elmohamady and Alan Hutton (the latter deserves an article entirely based on his own performance on the night) saw Villa through to safety and ahead a single goal on aggregate. The simplicity of Villa’s play on the day no doubt belied the heavy defensive instructions that the team were working with.
While the cushion provided by a single goal will be of some comfort to Villa, they are still only halfway through this fight. A second-leg at Villa Park awaits, and Middlesbrough will have to defy history, both buried in the past and more recent accounts, to book their trip to Wembley Stadium and a play-off final.
The Manager’s Thoughts
Steve Bruce rolled out his usual ‘that’s the Championship’ line in a post-match interview with Sky Sports, and refused to celebrate anything - there’s still a game to go. However, he was quick to hail his side’s performance as a defensive masterclass. Hard to disagree there.
More from the boss below:
Former Villa icon, Juan Pablo Angel is loving it:
You cannot avoid mentioning a tweet THIS good from Villa Underground:
For those who saw Boro’s weird long-throw preparation that ironed out about 15 seconds of the clock each time they took a throw-in, this tweet is for you:
Pulis complaining about time-wasting was lovely to see, given Boro were shampoo, conditioning and blow-drying the ball before every first half throw in. #avfc— Dave Rule (@DRule91) May 12, 2018
Villa’s songbook this season hasn’t ventured too far away from Seven Nation Army by The White Stripes - but we’re hitting a cultural peak right now. Villa’s away following made this tribute to Robert Snodgrass, inspired by the late David Bowie:
PORK SCRATCHINGS HIGHLIGHTS
Expected goals can tell us a fair bit about a match. Here’s an explainer. In the long term we can judge how well a team is doing in front of goal. On a match-by-match basis, we can simply judge chances, and how well they are taken.
Villa: 0.63 (1)
Middlesbrough: 1.02 (0)
Data provided by Infogol
Villa made the best of their chances and Boro’s big effort on goal was calmly collected by Sam Johnstone. Mile Jedinak’s goal from a tight angle gave Villa an unexpected lead, and that would have been doubled if Robert Snodgrass’ wonder shot from 20 yards out wasn’t tipped onto the post. All in all, it’s a perfect win in difficult circumstances.
Goalscorers: Mile Jedinak nicked Villa’s only goal with a sly header
Big winners: Mile Jedinak helped bolster Villa’s defence, but the performances of Jack Grealish and Alan Hutton have certainly raised their stock to stratospheric levels
Big losers: Eh. Robert Snodgrass and Conor Hourihane threatened to lose their heads throughout the game, but you’ve got to feel for Ahmed Elmohamady who came off injured late on.
Best moment: Do you have to ask?
Worst moment: Forget Adama, Villa were seemingly unable to deal with reserve full-back Fabio. The former Manchester United player was given room and time to do some serious damages through deep crosses and lay-offs. If Boro tweaked their side at the right time, it would have worked. Still, the match was mostly positive, with very little reason to complain
Man of the Match: Alan Hutton. The Villa left/right-back put in some real graft across both sides of the pitch to man-mark Adama Traore out of the game. A mention to Jack Grealish, who threatened Middlesbrough often with pitch-spanning dribbles.