It’s been exactly 100 days since our last Premier League fixture and the miserable capitulation to Leicester City. It’s fair to say that a lot has changed in that time and the World is a significantly different place now. Amidst the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic every possible machination was considered for the resumption of football as soon as it was safe enough to do so.
That turned out to be this week and as luck would have it, having been the last team team to play before the break, we would be the first team to play upon its resumption, albeit in the strange circumstances of playing behind closed doors.
Having had all that time to ponder where our season had been going, the questions ahead of our return against Sheffield United was, had we learned our lessons and could we come back stronger in hopes of turning our fortunes around in the relegation battle?
Aside from the odd spectacle of watching Villa play in an empty Villa Park, there were other changes to be aware of aside from the social distancing of coaches and substitutes. There is now an additional two substitutes allowed on the bench as well as being able to make an extra two during the match.
Smith marked the occasion by making some notable changes to his starting 11, swapping out Reina in favour of Nyland between the sticks, bringing Konsa in at Right back to replace Guilbert (who didn’t make the squad) and notably giving Keinan Davis his first Premier League start ahead of Samatta. Of course, it also marked the long awaited return of John McGinn – out of action since December – to bolster our midfield.
As for the Blades, they were missing their tenacious midfielder John Fleck as well as their ever present Centre Back, Jack O’Connell, handing a league debut to Jack Robinson in his place.
As the first game back in the Premier League, it felt like the whole world was watching and with that in mind both teams, management and match officials took a knee to send out a powerful collective statement of unity with the global ‘Black Lives Matters’ movement that also adorned their shirts in lieu of players’ names.
With all of that build up it might have been easy to forget there was an important match to be played, affecting both ends of the league table. Once the long awaited action got underway, it was Villa who made the brighter start, looking lively going forwards and well organised defensively. We succeeded in preventing their adventurous wing backs from getting in behind and both Billy Sharp and Oli McBurnie found themelves well marshalled.
At the other end, Keinan Davis was causing their defenders problems, using his strength and physicality well to cause problems for John Egan in particular. He ran the channels willingly and linked up well with other players, fully justifying his surprise inclusion in the starting line-up.
After Hourihane had seen a low drive well stopped by Henderson, Davis could have notched one himself, unable to keep a header down at the back post after Hause had headed back across goal from a corner.
Unfortunately for Villa, all of their lively play and notable improvements were to be undermined by a moment of controversy. A deep whipped free kick from Oliver Norwood on the stroke of half-time sailed into the hands of Nyland who, backpedalling, hit a combination of post and Keinan Davis and pretty obviously carried the ball over the line and into the net.
The previously faultless goal-line technology inextricably didn’t register it as a goal however, and the referee and linesman – seemingly obstructed in their view – didn’t overrule the error and so, no goal was given where it should have been. It was a very harsh break for Sheffield United and an incredibly fortunate one for Villa.
It would have been very harsh on Villa though, who had largely been the better side, but instead of talking about that, the discussion would instead be, once again, the failings of technology (albeit this time in our favour).
If United felt angered by the decision it didn’t seem to have a notable effect on their play, as Villa came out in the second half and continued to fashion the better chances. First Davis, running on to a ball over the top, forced a good one handed save out of Henderson and McGinn, finding space on the edge of the area, placed a shot towards the top corner only for Henderson to make another good save.
After the hour mark, the game began to peter out somewhat as both teams became a little laboured in their efforts, with a couple of players appearing to cramp up a little. This was perhaps to be expected given the three month layoff, lack of match practice and limited time afforded to teams to train together.
With the club’s moving gesture to place a lone steward’s jacket over a seat in the Holte End to honour the passing of Dean Smith’s father, Ron, a win on our return to action would have been a fitting tribute. On the balance of play and the chances created, Villa would have been deserving of the three points but sadly that will likely go unacknowledged given the high profile error that cost Sheffield United a perfectly valid goal.
In the circumstances the point isn’t terrible against a side who had been having a terrific season. Given it was our match in hand and a win would have taken us out of the releagtion zone, there’s a tinge of disappointment that, having shown improvements and having created some decent chances, we couldn’t get the win.
But not losing was equally important given our last Premier League outing and a clean sheet* (asterisk very much acknowledged) was also a significant improvement given our unwanted title of league’s leakiest defence. Hopefully the players will have gained some confidence from this performance for the visit of Chelsea on Sunday.