Aston Villa will play at least one more season in the Championship.
One defensive lapse at the back in the first half was the key moment, as Alan Hutton got caught for Ryan Sessegnon to play Tom Cairney through, giving Fulham the only goal in a 1-0 decision at Wembley Stadium on Saturday.
Villa were admittedly second-best in the first half, but they weren’t out of it at the break — while Fulham had much of the ball, they only created one or two clear-cut chances, and entered half-time with the lead after a good, but not overwhelming display. The Claret and Blues sat back and absorbed pressure, a decision that Steve Bruce will now likely be criticized for by Villa supporters.
A first-half flash point came after Fulham’s goal, when Ryan Fredricks stamped on Jack Grealish right in front of the fourth official, but got away with it. Instead of being reduced to 10 men, the Cottagers were able to continue on.
Villa came out of the second half with guns blazing and finally got their attack going throughout the last 45 minutes of the match. The best chance probably came around the hour mark, when Grealish dribbled past three defenders but hit his shot straight at Fulham keeper Marcus Bettinelli, who really wasn’t tested much all match.
In truth, Grealish could’ve been sent off a few minutes later for a rash challenge he received a yellow for, but referee Anthony Taylor finally sent a player off around 70 minutes, when Dennis Odoi was shown red for a second yellow-card offense. Villa had no fewer than four half-penalty shouts denied by the referee over the course of the 90 minutes, but none were overwhelmingly convincing.
Steve Bruce threw on attacking power in the final 20 minutes, chasing the match with Jonathan Kodjia, Josh Onomah and Scott Hogan coming on for Ahmed Elmohamady, Mile Jedinak and Conor Hourihane, respectively, but the Claret and Blues couldn’t find a breakthrough and the goal to force extra time.
On the balance of the season, Fulham have been rewarded. The Cottagers were clearly one of the three best teams in this division and their league position next season will dictate that. Villa were, as difficult as it is to swallow, a clear fourth-best this season.
We now enter the offseason, and this one could be the most important in the club’s history. Tony Xia’s gamble on achieving promotion by the end of this season didn’t come off, and the club could be in serious trouble with Financial Fair Play regulations next campaign. It’s almost certain that Lewis Grabban, Robert Snodgrass, John Terry and Sam Johnstone have all appeared in a Villa shirt for the final time, and Alan Hutton’s contract is also up this summer. Combine that with likely Premier League interest surrounding Jack Grealish and the need to generate profit this summer to avoid FFP penalties, and the Villa team that takes the pitch next in August will look very different from the one that was out at Wembley today.