As Villa beat Albion three-nil Dave Woodhall is looking forward with optimism.
I’ve been saying for a while now that this Villa side are reminding me of the late seventies period when Ron Saunders was building his greatest achievement – sometimes great, sometimes frustrating and occasionally poor. At that time Ron Atkinson’s Albion were briefly the best team in the area (something I’ll finally admit four decades later) but the Villa were always able to get a result against them.
It’s ironic in a way that the last surviving example of Big Ron’s counterparts, Bigger Sam Allardyce, took over at the Hawthorns in time for this latest chapter in the oldest rivalry in league football. It’s also ironic that we got the sort of result, with the sort of performance, that turned the clock back all those years.
The suspended players returned, the injured ones didn’t, and with nine substitutes now allowed, Villa’s bench still showed the paucity of strength to be addressed in January. I’d like to have seen Louie Barry given a place rather than one of the four defenders named, although I can understand why Dean Smith isn’t hurrying the boy wonder.
In any case, it wasn’t long before we saw what type of game this was going to be, when Anwar El Ghazi tapped home a perfect cross from Bertrand Traore.
Half an hour and a couple of missed chances later we saw what else this fixture often produces when Albion were reduced to ten men following the latest in a serial assault on Jack Grealish. It was after a VAR call, and I have to be consistent and say that for such an incident if the ref thinks it’s a yellow then a yellow it should be. It made no matter, though, as Villa were no more dominant against ten men than they had been against eleven, and neither did they need to be. Totally dominant in all areas of the pitch, there was only ever going to be one winner of this game even if it did take until the closing stages to get the second, or rather to get another goal that counted, because yet again those three letters denied Ollie Watkins by what seemed to be the hairs on his arm.
Eventually the pressure paid off, with some lovely work from Traore before a beautifully-placed shot to double the score. A couple of minutes later Grealish was brought down in the box and El Ghazi stepped up to hit the coolest penalty since El Ghazi’s at Molineux eight days ago. There was still time for him to be denied a hat-trick thank to a top-quality save from Sam Johnstone, who in another world might be with Villa.
Three-nil was a fair reflection, although this was the most one-sided game against the Albion I can remember for a long while and with a bit more sharpness in front of goal we could have got five or six. Ollie Watkins is shaping up to be the unluckiest striker in the Premier League while El Ghazi and Traore proved a few people wrong with their performances. Ninth in the table moving into the Christmas period, win just one of our games in hand and we go fourth. A bit more consistency and some judicious spending next mouth could see the end of season report upgraded from ‘better than expected’ to ‘beyond wildest dreams’.