Something For The Weekend (604)
After the feast, the butcher's bill..
There was some talk of collateral damage last week after Villa's exhibition of delight which was the local derby. What with David Davis twisting his knee and N'Doye stomping his way to a dismissal it looked like SHA had paid the heavier price, but somehow, in the glee of the aftermath, this slogger at least, forgot the stompee and the rest of Villa's bruised and battered. Then to compound my crime of optimism, I took Steve Bruce's announcement that Grealish and Adomah were 'doubtful' literally, when he actually meant 'totally knackered'. Silly me, I thought, as the team-sheet was issued before Villa's away game at
Fulham, which revealed the extent of Bruce's cobbled together eleven, which not only had the limpers missing but familiar faces in unfamiliar places. Needless to say, Villa battled gallantly but didn't look quite the thing and Fulham got the win they just about deserved.
Come Tuesday night, with the hope that the end of Villa's winning-streak was mostly down to Fulham's quality, Preston North End's arrival at Villa Park looked like a chance for Bruce's boys to get things back on track, even if the starting eleven looked like Bruce had shoehorned some of the eleven into unfamiliar positions, for reasons more to do with loyalty and man-management rather than strategy. It was only after Preston had gone one-nil up and injuries and fatigue forced his hand, did Bruce move the square pegs back where they are known to function best and bring on Davis and Grabban to ask some better questions. Villa gradually began to look like a functioning unit and finally got their reward when Grabban converted the penalty, after Davis was knocked over from a not untypical robust Preston challenge. Preston were more than happy with their point and ran the clock down like professionals. The Villa faithful were just relieved that at least we had avoided starting a losing-streak.
With dazzling sunshine offering hints of spring at Craven Cottage, Fulham overloaded their midfield in the opening minutes and proved to be the better passers of the ball, early doors. With Villa chasing the long shadows, Fulham created two attempts on goal which were both put wide of Johnstone's goal, with Newcastle loanee Mitrovic coming the closest with a header. Villa's first effort was created by a good pass from the back by John Terry to Hogan, and his scruffy combination with Bjarnason ended with a scuffed shot bobbling past Bettinelli's 's post. Villa then had their chance to show their midfield passing prowess, when Hourihane and Bjarnason did a slick one-two and the latter broke through but put his left-foot shot wide. Villa enjoyed a little possession in midfield and the overlapping Tuanzebe slipped a ball inside to Hourihane, in wonder-goal territory, but his right-footed shot went way over. Villa were beginning to dominate but then an Hourihane attempt was smothered and Fulham broke away at speed, only for Mitrovic to be flagged offside. Fulham started the second-half in the same manner as they started the first, with Villa chasing. They eventually drew Villa blood when Ayite put the pacey Fredericks through with a classy ball down Villa's left. Leaving Hutton looking like he was trying to go up on the down-escalator, Fredericks had plenty of time to find Sessegnon, standing all alone in a big hole in the Villa defence, who scored with an energy-saving little chip into the Villa net. Fulham were on top now and Villa seemed to run out of steam as they started to get caught in possession in midfield. Fulham chances were thwarted by offside and then a timely intervention by Tuanzebe respectfully. The Villa's finisher arrived when a foul on Tuanzebe was taken by Sam Johnstone, who in a moment of aberration sent his kick directly to Ayite in the centre-circle and with no Villa player in attendance, he carefully unwrapped his gift and shot into the empty Villa net. With Villa looking leggy Fulham were enjoying a bit of a romp and Mitrovic had two chances to make it three but was kept out by Johnstone. Ayite headed over a good
chance and Villa looked ragged. Then a good run by Bjarnason created an opportunity for a cross, which Hogan volleyed weakly past the post. Chance after chance came for Fulham but luckily for Villa they were wasteful. Villa spirits went down with the sun.
The game against Preston at Park Villa on Tuesday night was a football match of an entirely different kind and was rather more in line with the Championship's reputation than some of the more cultured play shown at Fulham. Once Villa had managed to circumvent the push and shove of Preston, Bjarnason broke through and unleashed a real palm-stinger which Rudd was glad to push wide. The Snodgrass corner was met with a decent Terry header which brought a stylistic Billy the fish impression from the leaping Rudd. Preston seemed more intent to pass the ball backwards when they got midfield possession and got their first chance when Terry failed to control a cross-field ball from Onomah, and Robinson flashed a well hit shot past the Villa's post. Villa were looking tentative but sprang to life when Hogan went on a mazy run into Preston territory but was halted by a dainty trip from Pearson, which got the job done. Snodgrass bent in the free-kick, Terry headed it back across the goal and after a bit of trickery Hogan managed to crash in a shot from a very narrow angle which was pushed away by Rudd. Preston looked to break away but Bjarnason halted it with a similar method to that used by Pearson earlier on. Villa looked on top as they worked across the edge of the Preston area and Hutton flashed in a shot which Rudd saved well. Villa were continuing to press with Onomah tying it all together around the edge of the Preston box. Villa looked in control when Hourihane was tripped by Pearson and the referee unaccountably waved play on. Robinson strolled through midfield and sent Barkhuizen down the left and was about to put in his cross from the byline before Tuanzebe took it off his toe for a corner. Robinson sent in the corner, Bodin elbowed Johnstone in the ribs while he was in mid-flight and his subsequent poor clearance fell to Barhuizen, who sent in a lobbed volley which Johnstone managed to bat into his own net. It had looked more like a rugby line-out than a corner but it got the job done and Johnstone got the blame. Ugly cynical stuff, bad refereeing.
Preston continued to dominate as they went looking for a second goal, at the end of the first half and at the start of the second, with ex-Villan Callum Robinson having an eye-catching game in midfield . They were inches from a crucial contact from a cross from Villa's left and then peppered the Villa goal from a series of corners, where Johnstone needed to be active. Bodin deliberately put his elbow into Jedinak's face with malicious intent, which the referee interpreted according to Lancashire rules. Robinson had a golden chance when Terry deflected a penetrating ball to him, even though he was obviously offside, when the pass was made. Johnson was quickly off his line to clear with his feet. Hutton got the crowd going with a charging run and Onomah put in a good cross which was just about headed on and Davis chased. The defender braced himself for the body-check and got his elbow into Davis's ribs and both linesman and the referee decided it was a penalty, as Keinan hit the deck. Grabban strolled up, waited for Rudd to flop like a haddock on a fishmonger's counter and stroked the shot down the middle to salvage a point for Villa. Preston got a chance when the referee ignored what looked like an obvious handball but the toe-poke wasn't enough to beat Johnstone. Villa responded with a charge down the field from Johnstone's kick and Onomah's deflected shot went to Grabban who didn't quite get the right connection to score Villa a winner. Luckily for Villa Fisher's theatrical dive late in the game did not convince the linesman. Grabban out on Villa's right wing had another shot on goal but it went high over the bar. Fisher was at it again when he went down clutching his leg but then sprinted after the ball when he realised he wasn't going to get anything. Villa's play continued with the tidy Onomah and Hutton gave the crowd a thrill with a rocket which went over the bar. Keinan Davis did some great work as Villa broke away and might have scored but his volley from Grabban's cross skipped wide. The whistle went and being grateful for small mercies was the only recourse for those not entirely addicted to self-flagellation.
Preston were decent in a beastly sort of way and demonstrated the rigour of the Championship competition. Villa's visit to Sheffield Wednesday on Saturday will be another good test of Bruce's jury-rigged team. Villa have a rash of injuries to contend with and the starting-eleven is going to be anyone's guess. With Cardiff four points ahead it is going to be a big test of character and nerve for Villa fans and players alike. Wednesday might be in the bottom third of the table but they sure gave Derby a big shock ten days ago. Gary Hooper is their top-scorer with eleven goals but has been missing recently. Jordan Rhodes, known to have scored against Villa in the past, has six. Lucas Joao seems in favour at the moment. Barry Bannan is out with a hip injury. It's yet another must-win for Villa. Villa nail-biters will definitely need to wear gloves. 'Cause there's going to be a whole lotta shakin' going on.
Keep the faith!