A game of three thirds

Dave Woodhall on Villa’s Monday night encounter at the Hawthorns. 

At 8.15 on Monday night I was prepared to write off playing the Albion as just another game. We were away to a side (marginally) above us in the table, so a defeat wouldn’t be the end of the world.  75 minutes of playing time later we’d added another thrilling chapter to the most historic fixture in world football.

The starting line-up raised a few eyebrows, and more than a few voices when Villa went two down after eleven minutes. After that we could have scored a couple, with Albion also having chances, before half-time and the opportunity to re-group. Or not, as it transpired. The same team that were outplayed in the first half started the second, and with much the same end result. Then Paul Lambert made the bold decision to make all three available substitutions with 33 minutes still remaining and the rest is history.

Villa either got lucky or it was one of the most inspired managerial decisions in living memory; take your pick. There’s always a big debate about whether players shouldn’t be on the bench if they aren’t fit to play 90 minutes, but it seemed to work perfectly on this occasion. After so long out it would have been asking a lot of Fabian Delph and Gabby Agbonlahor to perform in a high-intensity local derby for 90 minutes but they were able to provide the fresh impetus that the side needed. In the end a draw was probably a fair result and although it won’t go down as one of the great Villa v Albion games, it did remind supporters on both sides that this match has still got some passion in it. It will also have shown the TV viewers that Villa games can be exciting, although that has the double-edges sword of meaning that we might have our fixtures moved more often.

In a wider context, Villa will definitely take more out of the evening than will Albion. From reading what their supporters were saying before the game this was to be the night when their superiority was confirmed; “a million miles ahead”, according to some. I’ll readily concede that the way their affairs have been managed has been an object lesson for a medium-sized club in the modern era. They’ve had a goal, a vision, and they’ve not let anything get in their way. As a result they’ve got more experienced players than Villa, and are probably two years further advanced in their team-building. A win would have given them the self-assurance that they’re better than the Villa. Throwing away a two-goal lead might have made them think again.

The team showed resilience, and once again proved that they’re a very different prospect than they were twelve months ago. If Christian Benteke can start scoring goals there’s a run of games coming up where they can start to pick up points and move up the table. Next up is Sunderland on Saturday; so far Villa haven’t had a worse scoreline in any game than in the corresponding fixture last season. I’ll be very surprised, and delighted, if we can still be saying that this time next week.