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If there’s one thing we’ve become accustomed to over the years watching Aston Villa, is that we never do it the easy way.
It was though, a vital, timely, excellent away win.
This was an untidy performance, largely as a result of injuries enforcing changes upon one of the ropiest defences (statistically) in the division.
Despite this, Villa eventually found their feet in a scrappy encounter, where the hosts equally struggled to establish control over proceedings. Indeed, Swansea very much have the look of a side in the midst of the dreaded post relegation ‘transition‘ period.
The hosts were purposeful though and still harbour the ambition to be a neat footballing side. This almost reaped rewards, particularly in the vast space that exists between our wide men and erratic fullbacks Elmohamady and Hutton.
We also need to rid ourselves of surrendering possession cheaply, something that’s reared it’s head again in recent weeks. All too often against The Swans we wasted an opportunity to advance up the pitch through poor pass selection.
Swansea had their chances, particularly from set-plays, but were unable to capitalise upon often last ditch Villa defending. It was a risky game that just about paid off but for which we almost paid the ultimate price.
Despite this untidyness and a very reserved start to the game, the midfield [particulary] began to grow in confidence.
McGinn was his usual terrier-like self and will be disappointed not to have got on the scoresheet in the first half; blasting a close range effort straight at the ‘keeper.
Glenn Whelan, unfashionable as he may be, broke up the play well and cut a vocal figure. He was a cool head and did much of the unheralded, dirty work, as per his remit. The Irishman also barracked the useless referee and opposition players at key moments, a trait few within the squad possess.
Villa continue to miss Grealish, an obvious statement, but with no natural replacement, it forces Smith into an awkward team selection that unbalances us.
Conor Hourihane is a player who I always think suffers for this – routinely played too deep by the previous regime – and at times being anonymous himself – he drifted in and out of this game.
Hourihane’s most telling moments came first by testing the keeper with a direct free-kick, before powerfully heading home from Hutton’s cross to give Villa a priceless lead.
The keeper could little other than flail at his effort, with the momentum carrying the ball over the line between ricochets from player and crossbar.
It was a deserved goal, but as is the case with Villa, we rode our luck.
Nyland, not having his worst game, failed to command his area again and virtually any ball into the box caused absolute chaos. The Norwegian cuts an isolated figure, rooted to his line and was relieved to see a Swansea effort rebound off the outside of the post from a headed corner.
There were other talking points too.
John McGinn appeared to be fouled in the area after good work from El Ghazi to head back in the second half. The referee was un-moved.
There was also a reckless, high challenge on Tammy Abraham that went completely unpunished. Despite being out-of-control, lunging, shin high and off the ground, the referee waved away the protests and scuffles amongst the players.
Then came a heart stopping moment in the dying seconds, as El Ghazi clumsily challenged in the area as Villa struggled to clear their lines yet again. It was a hapless challenge from the Dutchman, whose performance had otherwise been impressive.
As Wilfred Bony stood over the ball, that awful feeling of inevitability started seeping into every Villa fans veins.
The ball was struck firmly and to Nyland’s right, which he both guessed correctly and dived full stretch to save. Further to his credit, his save palmed the ball expertly into the safety to the left of the goal allowing the defence to recover.
With Lovre Kalinic waiting in the wings and Villa desperate to maintain contact with the Playoff places, such an intervention couldn’t be more timely for Nyland. Whilst he’s struggled badly at times this season, this is certainly a moment where recognition is due.
Villa held on for a win, that against the backdrop of the 3-2 defeat to Leeds and the way that results for others are going, looks very important indeed.
We now enter an important phase having got ourselves back within three points of the playoffs. Smith finds himself in the enviable ‘striking’ position, but the only way we will succeed is by moving from unbeaten runs to long winning stretches.
The scene is now set for another important game, this time away to Preston (17th) quickly followed by a New Years day game against QPR (8th) at Villa Park.
If we harbour genuine ambitions of promotion, we simply must win both.