After last weekend’s gut punch of a defeat at home to Spurs, and the increasingly tenuous nature by which we hold on to our spot in 17th, this weekend’s trip to the South Coast to take on Southampton takes on greater significance – although at this stage of the season every game is of significance.
There were notable improvements in a few aspects of our game against Spurs; we were assertive, wanted to play on the front foot and attack, and yet some all too familiar weaknesses and defensive lapses showcased themselves again and we were once again, left ruing another game with no points that perhaps deserved better.
Another year and another trip to Wembley for the famous Claret and Blue. Pep Fraudiola may think that the League Cup needs scrapping for the good of English football (his clubs chances in the Champions League) but yesterday served as a stark reminder of just how wrong he is. Football is not about oil money, it’s not about alleviating a hectic schedule or even about the frequency of festive injuries. Football is about us, the hundreds of euphoric Brummies storming onto a floodlit pitch to celebrate with their heroes.
We’ve seen it all since Phil Dowd ruined our last League Cup final; a gradual decay and growing frustration; an FA cup final humiliation; 17 points and relegation; Bruce, Xia then Fulham, minutes away from liquidation. Edens, Sawiris and Smith, a new foundation; 10 wins in a row, growing expectation; Promotion at Wembley, Jack’s four day celebration.
All of this in a decade, yet we remain; this is our club and this is our beautiful game. As the roof was launched clean off of our cathedral last night, the founders of the football league had mounted the ultimate defence of the League Cup. We were the underdogs and 180 minutes against Leicester seemed like an impossible task to anybody present when they beat us 4-1 earlier in the season. But this is football and anything can happen.
Knockout competitons are special for this exact reason; last season we saw some of the most exhilarating matches ever in Europe as both Liverpool and Spurs overcame seemingly insurmountable odds in the most dramatic of fashions. But football is not just for teams in Europe, it is for all of us. If you want to watch a money dominated procession contested by only a few teams then stick Formula One on.
For top managers like Klopp and Pep, who have declared war on our domestic compeitions this year, Villa’s League Cup campagn should be a slice of humble pie. Yes, the festive fixture list may be ‘hectic’ and this may result in a few injuries. Infact, for us it has been devastating as we’ve had to play 5 games without a striker, yet I didn’t see Dean Smith or the fans complaining last night. I didn’t see a previously written-off Orjan Nyland berating the festive schedule while he made a trio of scintilating saves and played his way back into the hearts of the Villa faithful. Instead, I saw a sea of exaltation as some of the most deserving fans in the land belted out Que Sera, Sera; overjoyed at another chance to see their club at Wembley.
The irony is that en route to our defence of the League Cup, we have barely had a game to win. After Brighton (A) came the Dingles, their shirt numbers came to a combined 622 and we dispatched them by two goals to one; Elmohamady grabbed the winner in the 57th minute. Liverpool followed Wolves and we beat the World Champions 5-0; a demolition, a humiliation for them and a loss that will forever be a stain on what may well become an unbeaten season. Not everybody can mix it with Elmohamady and clearly our Egyptian was a step too far for Klopp’s men. It could have been Nuno or Klopp celebrating on the touchline last night and sending their fans into rapture; if only they had respected the cup.
But it wasn’t, this was Aston Villa’s night and the players certainly earned it. In the first leg, our new system paid dividends as Guilbert took advantage of his more attacking role and poked in a shock opener. Our defence stood firm until a self-inflicted equaliser evened the score for Leicester late on. In reality though, despite their 25 long range stat padders, they were limited to very few chances. It was all to play for last night, and boy did we play.
The game got off to a frenzied start as Nyland made three quite remarkable saves, whilst Schmeichel did well to deal with a Targett cross after some exquisite interplay with Jack. This link-up once again justified our new wing back system on its own, as Jack performed his usual magic, popping the ball off his standing foot and into the path of a charging Targett who fired the ball past a helpless Schmeichel. We had the lead in the tie once again.
Leciester had plenty of shots, yet it was Villa who had the best chances; Grealish curled a sublime pass into Samatta’s path but sadly the debutant could not make the all important connection. Luiz and Nakamba both played a blinder in midfield and are forming a brilliant, combative partnership in the middle of the park. Yet this could not stop Iheanacho sneaking in at the back post and making it 6 goals in 6 games against Villa; this all felt too familiar and even the most optimistic of fans was wracked with pessimistic expectation. We are Villa, we don’t get nice things and a Jamie Vardy winner seemed inevitable, yet it did not come. What did occur, was nothing short of extraordinary.
Elmohamady, the veteran right back who has been at the very heart of this League Cup campaign picked the ball up just into Leicester’s half, took two touches to compose himself and then whipped in a cross that has the ‘bend it like Beckham’ producers scrambling back into the studio. This was a cross that eliminates every bit of poor defending he has ever produced (a lot) from my mind. It soared through the air on the perfect trajectory and right on cue was his fellow Egyptian, Trezeguet, who sprinted onto the physics defying cross and passed a delicate volley back across the goal and into the net.
Cue bedlam, cue limbs and cue ‘a return to the dark ages’. We are the mighty Aston Villa and we were back in the lead, back in the cup final and back on the pitch. Just over a month since Vardy had mocked the Holte end, he left the pitch distraught and just like Deeney, he had learned his lesson. For us, this was a special night and Wembley awaits; who knows, we might even turn up and find a celebratory scarf under all our seats…
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Beating Norwich 5-1, away at Carrow Road, was hopefully a sign of things to come. We looked good, passing the ball around well, causing the opposition to make mistakes and being ruthless in front of goal. It also sent a message to other teams around us in the bottom half of the league table – we are coming for you!
And Brighton are one of those teams. However, they are coming to Villa Park off the back of a brilliant 3-0 victory against an under-fire Spurs side. So this one promises to be a serious battle!