Leeds United fans have been telling the same joke over the past few weeks. The one where they beat Aston Villa, because Villa’s goal (an actual gift from the team due to ‘sportsmanship issues’) doesn’t actually count and thus the match was actually 1-0 to Leeds. It’s funny - for a short while. However, if you want to see an actual ghost goal just cast your mind back to December, when in the closing stages of the West Midlands derby contested between West Bromwich Albion & Aston Villa, Jay Rodriguez scored a goal - with his hand - to ensure that both teams would draw the match 2-2.
Aston Villa will now face West Bromwich Albion over two legs in the play-off semi-final, and while they do have a heap of momentum on their side (10 wins in a row to all but see out the season will do that for you) they’d do well to cast out all recent memories of this particular fixture as it probably won’t do them any good to linger.
Why? Let’s get the first fixture out of the way.
The Hand of Rod
When Jay Rodriguez bundled the ball into the net in the dying seconds of his side’s clash with Aston Villa before Christmas, he stayed still, with his head digging into the turf with a disappointed wince. He knew he’d blew it. However, the crowd and his team erupted - and continued to do so without interruption. His mistake had gone unnoticed. When Orjan Nyland was rocked when claiming a corner in the Villa goalmouth, Rodriguez had passed the ball into the open net with his hand. Goal. 2-2. Villa would gain a point in a fixture that crowned a testing run of poor results and it was due to a illegitimate goal. Everybody, including the goalscorer knew that.
Even then, what if Jay’s goal had been flagged as a foul? There’s no guarantee that Villa would have won the match when facing late pressure from the Baggies. West Brom could have easily bundled home (and in fact would have done if it was Rodriguez’s face, shoulder, chest, groin or knee that had hit the ball and not his hand).
So why shouldn’t Villa linger on this one? It sounds harsh, but if they didn’t want to be hurt by a bad refereeing decision, they should have increased their lead (and they did have chances to do so). It sounds incredibly harsh, but it’s not as harsh as losing two points due to a goal that doesn’t count - but does. It should be a lesson taken forward, and while the team could sit down and lick their wounds and cry-out against the salted unfairness of the world - what good would it do? The final result counts.
A ‘Crushing Loss’
Villa returned their league fixture with the Albion at Villa Park and a second-half collapse saw them fall to a 2-0 defeat. However, the scoreline flatters Albion (and not that they didn’t deserve their win).
With all due respect to the teams that tested Villa over a poor winter period, it was more so ill luck that defined this spell. Freddie Sears hammered home a worldie to worry Villa when Ipswich came to town. A world-class goalkeeping display prevented Villa from beating Reading. An agonising miss from Birkir Bjarnason halted a win at Preston. Villa defended expertly to keep Hull City to two sloppy, low-quality chances that they scored.
The last one is of huge interest to Villa because it’s exactly what happened when WBA faced off against AVFC at Villa Park. Villa defended well, and allowed West Bromwich to shoot from poor angles - and West Brom still scored. Villa pretty much did all they could for the goalkeeper and the opposition still scored. An odd looping header and a long range deflection ensured that Villa would be crushed by the Baggies. Add a close range Tammy Abraham miss and you’ve got the perfect 2-0 loss.
So why aren’t we lingering on this one either? Well - Villa’s form balanced out and they wouldn’t lose for the next 12 games. What can you even say when you do your best and the other team score? It didn’t prove anything to anyone and Villa are a much better team right now then they were when the Baggies came to town.
Lingering on these two spiteful results won’t aid a Villa team that has grown so much since the last time these two teams faced off. Every single player is a better one than when they last played West Brom, so what’s the point on dwelling on days gone by? Especially when we’ve all come so far?
The play-offs are a cruel competition, but Villa have already endured a double dose of cruelty at the hands of Albion. Does this come in a three-pack? Ideally not. It likely will though, if Villa’s head is stuck firmly in the past, previous fixtures and not in the present, which is the only thing that matters right now. There’s a clean slate for Villa to wipe Albion all over, and that won’t happen if the team is rooted in bygones.