After last season’s journey to the League Cup Final and given that it was the last major trophy we won – albeit nearly a quarter of a century ago – Villa have something of an affinity with the competition we were inaugural winners of back in 1961.
After vanquishing League One Burton Albion in the second round last week, we’re straight back into action in the third round tonight against Championship side Bristol City.
After parting company with manager Lee Johnson after four years at the helm, a period in which they’d perennially flirted with the playoffs but invariably missed out, the Robins have opted for Johnson’s former assistant, Dean Holden to take over the the managerial hot seat.
He’s been quick to make himself popular with the red side of Bristol too, overseeing four straight wins (two in the league and two in the preceding rounds of this competition).
Of course we’ve started our own season in pretty confident fashion with back to back wins and some decent pre-season performances to boot. The slew of new signings coming in have seemingly settling straight into their new surroundings, with Ollie Watkins, Matty Cash and Emiliano Martínez all looking very comfortable on their debuts. With Bertrand Traoré set to make his debut in some form tonight, there’s a sense of building optimism amongst the Villa faithful towards this developing squad.
It sets the tie up nicely with two teams growing in confidence and feeling optimistic going head to head, something will have to give tonight. With Stoke City awaiting the winner after their 2-0 victory over Gillingham last night, for Villa there’s the incentive of a home tie against another lower league opposition and hopes of progressing deep into this competition once again.
But if our time in the Championship has taught us anything – and hopefully it has – we’ll be wise not to get too ahead of ourselves. Our record at Ashton Gate is not particularly good. 2 draws and a defeat from our three visits in recent seasons shows how tricky Bristol City are to play on their own patch and with their growing confidence under their new management they will likely be a tough nut to crack.
The Summer additions of wily veterans like Chris Brunt and Chris Martin alongside the curse of the former player in Andi Weimann and Villa won’t be in for an easy ride. They’ll likely have to graft hard for this one, so a repeat of the more lethargic start to the Burton match can’t be replicated this time around.
As always with cup games there’ll be some squad rotation but Smith opted for a fairly strong line-up against Burton and I imagine he’ll do the same again here. He’ll likely switch the full backs around, bring El Ghazi back in and decide between Steer and Nyland in goal, but other than that it’s who he opts for in the central midfield that may be of most importance for winning this battle.
He may be tempted by Nakamba’s tenacity in trying to win the ball back as much as possible as I imagine he’ll rest Douglas Luiz for this one. But whether he goes for Hourihane or Lansbury again in the number 8 role is less clear. If rumours of interest in Ross Barkley or Ruben Loftus-Cheek are to be believed then it’s likely to serve as fire beneath the feet for Conor or a continued shop window for Lansbury.
It’ll be a very tough, close fought battle tonight would be my expectation, if we’re to win we’ll have to dig in for it, but we showed against Sheffield United that we’re capable of that. I’m going to go for a 2-1 Villa win, but it might well be one to be settled on penalties in which case it’s time to channel the spirit of that night at the Hawthorns.
By Jamie Yapp