It’s been just over a week since Aston Villa’s nail-biting victory against our near neighbours West Bromwich Albion in the second leg of the play-off semi-final.
A year’s worth of planning, effort and hope could have been dashed by just a few kicks of a football.
Thankfully that wasn’t the case, and the shootout win against Albion will be remembered fondly in the minds of Villa aficionados for years to come - even more so, should we beat Derby County at Wembley on Monday.
But, the drama and ecstasy of that penalty shootout has gone someway in masking Villa’s subpar showing over the two legs, which West Brom could - and should, perhaps - have capitalised on, save for two needless red cards from Dwight Gayle and Chris Brunt respectively. Before the latter’s dismissal in the 80th minute of the second leg, James Shan’s men were enjoying the upper hand and looked the most likely to nick a late, decisive goal. Yet Brunt’s deserved red card forced Albion to drop deeper in extra time and, effectively, hold out for penalties.
While Villa were not exactly pinned back inside our own half in the earlier proceedings, the Baggies undoubtedly benefited from some sloppy play from the visitors.
Tyrone Mings and Axel Tuanzebe have been two of the standout men in the second half of the campaign, but several idle passes from the pair put Villa under pressure at the Hawthorns. In the first leg, they also appeared over-confident in their marking of Gayle, who, of course, found the freedom of the park to net the opening goal of the game after 16 minutes. Afforded to much time and space, the on-loan Newcastle United man was a nuisance all afternoon for Villa, and there was never a sense that our centre-backs were in control of the situation.
Against Derby, the Villans will likely face a similar type of striker in Jack Marriott, who bagged two in their comeback victory over Leeds United during the semi-final second leg. While not quite on the same level as Gayle, Marriott is an intelligent, nippy striker - and an excellent finisher to boot.
Mings and Tuanzebe were lax in their handling of Gayle, but they cannot afford to do likewise with Marriott. One mistake at Wembley could prove to be the difference between promotion, or a fourth successive season of second-tier football.
Similarly, our centre-back pairing will need to be more measured on the ball. For weeks, the Villa faithful have seen them stride confidently out from the back, finding the likes of John McGinn and Jack Grealish in the centre of the park, who in turn have launched devastating attacks.
This has been the cornerstone of Villa’s mid-season revival, but it went awry against Albion. Cool, composed passing out of defence is a must against Derby if we are to dominate possession, and hopeful the game’s flow.
Yet, the Rams will pose an altogether different proposition compared to West Brom, whose tactics over two legs revolved mainly around stifling our most creative players.
Shan’s set-up meant McGinn and Grealish struggled to find time and space to run the game as they have become accustomed to. They also found no room to operate between the midfield and defence, meaning the duo regularly were forced to drop deeper and play in-front of their midfield markers.
Derby, on the other hand, play a much more expansive system with an attacking-midfield three of Harry Wilson, Mason Mount and Tom Lawrence operating behind the lone striker, and just ahead of a two-man pairing in the centre of the park - most probably Duane Holmes and Bradley Johnson.
The ability of McGinn and Grealish to find pockets of space against Derby, may well prove to be a determining factor against Frank Lampard’s side at Wembley
Meanwhile, the Rams’ talented attacking trio could alter Dean Smith’s selection for the final, as he may opt to start with the more defensively savvy Glenn Whelan ahead of Conor Hourihane. The introduction of the former Stoke man would also allow McGinn and Grealish more freedom to meander into the attacking areas, which consequently could provide added opportunities to link-up with Tammy Abraham.
Another whose standards dropped in the semi-final double-header, the striker actually put in two of his poorer performances of the season against West Brom and struggled with the physical presence of their three centre-backs.
While Derby are expected to line up differently and use a more traditional four-man defence, Abraham will again face two powerful defenders in Richard Keogh and Fikayo Tomori.
At 21, there are currently few more well-rounded young strikers in Europe for his age, but one aspect Abraham must improve on is his ability to hold the ball up and bring team-mates into the game. Again, it could prove crucial in deciding the outcome of Monday’s clash.
For Villa, the talent, self-belief and experience of the bigger stage makes them favourites for the final, but it could all count for nothing should Smith’s claret and blue juggernaut fail to rectify the mistakes from our semi-final victory.
Please Villa….. we can’t take anymore Wembley heartbreak.