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Aston Villa underline top-four credentials with a comeback victory at Tottenham

Are Villa the real deal when it comes to Champions League aspirations? Do you want to bet against us?

Tottenham Hotspur v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Aston Villa moved into the Premier League’s top four with a come-from-behind statement victory over Tottenham Hotspur at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

A header from Pau Torres in first-half stoppage time and a flowing move that was finished off superbly by Ollie Watkins after the break flipped the game on its head and moved Villa above their hosts in the table and only two points shy of league-leaders Arsenal.

The manner of the victory will please Unai Emery greatly. Though they were under pressure for much of the first half, Villa managed to stay in the game and were able to exert control via a change of shape and the introduction of Youri Tielemans and Leon Bailey at half-time. Ultimately, Villa claimed a victory that was their 22nd of 2023, a club record for a single calendar year.

It’s a win over one of the traditional top six, one of Villa’s main rivals for a Champions League place, and the team that had led the division for much of the campaign so far playing entertaining, open football under their new manager.

It’s also Villa’s first away win since Stamford Bridge in September, a huge step forward towards fixing a patchy away record that was threatening to undermine their flawless Villa Park form.

Psychologically, the team and manager will now believe they can mix it with the very top teams before Manchester City and Arsenal come to B6 next week and they’ll start to think that they can last the course ahead of a busy December schedule.

Tottenham Hotspur v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Villa lined up in the 5-3-2 shape that has become the norm away from home this season, with Diego Carlos playing alongside Ezri Konsa and Torres, and Matty Cash and Lucas Digne playing as wing-backs.

In the first half they struggled badly to deal with Spurs’ aggressive press instigated by a front three of Brennan Johnson, Son Heung-Min, and Dejan Kulusevski and an energetic, creative midfield of Rodrigo Bentancur, Giovanni Lo Celso, and Bryan Gil.

The hosts should have been ahead inside three minutes when Destiny Udogie was put through by a long ball from Pedro Porro but blazed over the bar with only Emi Martinez to beat.

Villa had a huge let-off 60 seconds later when Kulusevski burst into the box, struck across the keeper but hit the inside of the post, only for Son to have the rebound blocked by Torres before Martinez eventually claimed.

Torres should have given the visitors the lead moments later when he headed wide when unmarked from an inswinging Digne free-kick.

Gil, Porro, and Son missed further good chances before Lo Celso gave Tottenham the lead in the 22nd minute. Porro’s corner fell to the Argentine who was unmarked on the edge of the box, and his strike flashed past a helpless Martinez via a deflection from Carlos’ hip.

At that stage, given Tottenham’s early dominance and chances, a repeat of the hammerings Villa had suffered at Newcastle United and Liverpool earlier in the campaign looked a possibility.

Watkins, who had been on the game’s periphery up until that point thought he’d equalised immediately, but his close-range header was ruled out for offside after a long VAR check.

Son had the ball in the net again before half time but he was played offside for the second of the three times in the match. Torres then got Villa back in the game in the seventh minute of first-half stoppage time with a well-placed header from an inch-perfect Douglas Luiz free-kick delivery.

Tottenham Hotspur v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Justin Setterfield/Getty Images

Emery and his players would have been delighted to have been back on level terms going into the break given how under par their performance was in that first 45. Torres’ second goal for the club came at an ideal time and gave them a chance to reset and attack the second half with positive substitutions.

Tielemans came on for Moussa Diaby and Bailey replaced Cash at the interval, who had endured a poor first and could have been sent off for a second booking after fouling Bentancur.

Bailey had Villa’s first chance of the second half in the 52nd minute when his shot was tipped onto the post by Vicario after he’d been played through by John McGinn.

Johnson was then inches away from restoring Spurs’ lead but he couldn’t quite connect with Kulusevski’s centre after a lightning break, before Son converted the Welshman’s pass but they were both offside.

Villa then took the lead for the first time two minutes later as Watkins and Tielemans exchanged passes on the edge of the box and the England international took a touch before sliding the ball under Vicario and into the net, with the goalkeeper being caught out by how early Watkins took the effort, to spark wild celebrations from the travelling fans behind the goal.

Tottenham Hotspur v Aston Villa - Premier League Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images

Despite the hosts beginning to tire by this point due to their previous effort, Villa still had Martinez to thank for keeping the scores level after he tipped Porro’s looping half volley around the post.

Ben Davies then headed narrowly over from a corner before Martinez produced a brilliant double save to deny first Johnson when clean through and then Pierre-Emile Højbjerg from distance.

Villa’s midfield quartet of McGinn, Tielemans, Luiz, and Boubacar Kamara had begun to relieve some pressure for the visitors as they protected their lead by creating passing triangles in their own half.

Vicario kept Spurs in with a shout by saving from Digne’s free-kick and Kamara’s effort from range before Watkins should have had his second and his team’s third but he headed just wide from Luiz’s corner.

Son completed a hat-trick of offside goals five minutes later when he tapped in after Kulusevski had hit the woodwork once more but was dismayed to see the flag raised again.

The visitors had to survive one final scare in stoppage time when Johnson’s corner flashed across the face of goal, but held on to record their third-straight win over the North London side following last season’s double.

It means that Villa have now taken 77 points since Emery was appointed and now must surely be taken seriously in the race for the top four. The Villans are two points clear of their hosts and four points clear of sixth-placed Manchester United with a better goal difference.

Emery’s men will have further chances to cement themselves amongst the elite in the coming weeks but Sunday’s result feels like a real marker for the progress that has been made over the last 12 months. Should this be followed up by similar results back on home turf against the top two, then the sky really will be the limit.