The pre-match narrative was easy. 100 matches in charge for Dean Smith. 200 appearances for Captain Jack Grealish. And on Boxing Day — which putting it kindly — has not been a good thing for Villa for many many years.
Dean Smith kept things simple with the lineup. No Barkley as he isn’t risked while coming back from a hamstring injury and Hause keeps his spot with Konsa on the bench.
The match got off to a rough start. Zaha can, and should, have put Crystal Palace up in the first minute but Martinez and Mings did enough to prevent the visitors from scoring an early goal.
Crystal Palace quickly regretted their miss. McGinn started a counter attack in the fourth minute with a long pass to Bertrand Traore. The winger released Watkins down the right and made a run to the middle. Watkins fired a shot from a tight angle forcing an excellent save from the Palace keeper. The rebound fell to Traore who put it into the net giving the hosts a wonderful 1-0 lead. And he did it with his right foot.
Both teams responded well to the goal. Martinez captured a very good Palace cross. Traore hit the post with a wonderful curling shot from outside the box. Mings gave away needless corner by missing a cross. The corner was cleared and Villa countered right away. Grealish one-on-two breakaway (with Zaha tracking Jack all the way back) but the captain’s left-footed shot was saved. All-in-all the opening 20 minutes were a quality watch with two teams going for goal.
VAR got involved on a Cash attempted clearance in the box. There was debate whether or not Matty made contact with the ball before catching the Palace attacker. Anthony Taylor was invited over to the screen. The original call was no penalty. The announcers (in the US) were confident it would be given. It wasn’t. Once again, and I feel like I write this every match, I have no idea what is or is not a penalty or what the purpose of VAR is.
Villa continued to pressure a Palace defense, especially through quick direct balls to Grealish and Watkins. El Ghazi had a decent chance with 10 minutes until the break. The winger did well to skip pass a defender but pulled his shot wide of the near post.
Mings and Zaha picked up yellow cards for some pushing, shoving and grabbing after Zaha fouled McGinn. (wasn’t called) and Mings fouled Zaha (was called).
Once again the Palace keeper kept the lead to one goal with a save on an El Ghazi far post shot from a Watkins cross. The rebound went right to Jack but he couldn’t find an angle for a shot.
Right before four minutes were added to the first half. Tyrone Mings got caught in an awkward position against Zaha. As soon as Zaha feels contact he goes down, demands a yellow, and gets it from Anthony Taylor. Mings off, Villa down to 10-men, though up a goal. John McGinn filled in a center back until Dean Smith took off the goal scorer Traore to put Konsa on the pitch. Harsh on Bertrand but El Ghazi offers more cover. Thankfully, Martinez made sure the halftime whistle blew with the Villa lead intact after dominated the game for large portions.
From the start of the second half, Villa were happy to take their time on all kicks and throws and both fullbacks were clearly told to be careful going forward. At one point in the opening minutes Villa did their usual thing of switching play from left to the right but no Matty Cash to be seen because the attack had started on the left.
Palace captain Luka Milivojevic picked up a yellow for taking down Jack Grealish and preventing a Villa counter.
Watkins had a pair of half chances fifteen minutes into the half. His far post header went directly in to the back of a defender’s head. Then he couldn’t quite control a cross in the Palace box so the ball ended up rolling to the keeper. Benteke on the other hand had some beautiful control to create Palace’s first chance that was deflected wide. Eventually the flag was raised so nothing counted but it was a sign of danger from a man that Villa supporters know so well.
El Ghazi picked up a free kick down Villa’s right. The free kick was good and the ball bounced up perfectly for Watkins. The striker dove at it with his head and beat the Palace keeper.... but not the cross bar. Thankfully for those in claret and blue, Hause was on the line and he deservedly doubled the Aston Villa lead.
Joel Ward picked up a yellow for yet another foul on Jack Grealish (drink). Then Palace made a sub with Riedewald on, Milivojevic off.
Watkins nearly had another goal off a counter attack between Jack and him. But a last ditch effort block the shot. Watkins cannot buy a goal but is playing very well.
Palace made an attacking sub: James Mcarthur off Batshuayi on.
Grealish continued to be the main outlet for counter attacks. He drove down the left, played a beautiful ball to Watkins who couldn’t quite control it. In the end he got to the ball and instead of playing out the frustration and trying a shot he laid it off to El Ghazi — who fired an absolute beauty into the net to make it 3-0.
Time for a few lines of appreciation for Emi Martinez. His control of the box and safe hands are like a warm embrace at the end of a cold evening. He is so cool and confident. He very well may be the top keeper in the Premier League. I’m so happy he plays for Villa.
With five minutes left, an exhausted El Ghazi went off to applause (at least I applauded at home and I would imagine I am not the only Villa fan.) Elmo came on.
Watkins and Grealish again combined to create a Watkins chance but it was saved. Then they did it again. And Watkins beat the keeper but not the far post. The man has played outstanding but just cannot find the net. He is a wonderful player.
In added time Jacob Ramsey came on for Luiz.
Dean Smith, and all Aston Villa supporters, can be very proud of the team. Villa dominated from the start. They went down a man, adjusted, and continued to dominate. The entire team deserve praise. I’ll pull out Watkins (despite not scoring), Martinez (despite not really being challenged he controlled the box and the defense so well), Targett, and Luiz. And Jack. And everyone else, except Mings because he was sent off.