The relief column

Villa got away with a 1-1 draw at Preston, as Dave Woodhall comments.

There’s an old newspaper adage that if the opposite of the story would be more of a surprise then you haven’t got a story. That’s why Villa taking another five thousand-odd tickets sold plus however many sitting quietly dotted around the rest of the ground following to an away match wasn’t much of a story. It’s what we do.

What we should also be able to do is go to places like Preston and get a routine three points. After all, they were struggling with injuries and had a sixteen year old making his debut. Winning a game like this shouldn’t be beyond the abilities of a team with designs on promotion.

The trouble was, Villa have injury problems of their own, and when a few of the team who’ve been picked are having an off-day, getting those three points is a bit harder than it should be.

There was a warning when Preston hit the bar after two minutes and they seemed the brighter of the sides throughout the first half. But, as we’ve seen to our cost often enough, any difference in the two sides can always be cancelled out when the one that’s been second best has got a to-quality striker. Tammy Abraham scored froma corner right on half-time and that should have been enough to see the Villa go on to win with ease.

But, this is the Villa and they failed to make the most of that confidence boost. Preston carried on with their attacking play and got an equaliser when Ahmed Elmohanady put the ball through his own net, although the fault seemed to lie more with a failure to cut out the cross than with the Villa defender’s attempted clearance.

Preston were still the better side and their direct approach play caused more than a few problems. But, and again this is often the case, Villa should have won the game in the closing minutes when Birkir Bjarnason missed what appeared on first view to be the easiest of chances. Looking back it was probably a bit harder than it seemed at the time, but these are the sort of opportunities that have to be taken by a team hoping to be successful. But on the whole it was Villa who were happier to hear the final whistle, and that’s not a state of affairs to be particularly happy about.

It was one of the poorest performances since Dean Smith arrived, although it was refreshing to hear the manager admit it. “We didn’t deserve to win…we weren’t great” is a world removed from the excuses and defence that our last few managers seem to have specialised in and saying so is to his credit. Smith also didn’t hide behind the injury list which combined with the situation he inherited meant that Villa had three right-backs playing in defence. Add that to the continued mystery absence of the most talented player in the division and any team would start to struggle.

I said after the win at Swansea that winning ugly is fine provided trying to play that way doesn’t become a habit and Villa have got to get back to the free-flowing football of a month ago. In hindsight Smith was probably wrong to name an unchanged side for the second game in four days and I’m sure he’s aware of the fact because learning from his mistakes seems to be a Dean Smith trademark. He’s not afraid to change a formation that’s not working and despite some indifferent displays we’ve got to January still in touch with the play-off places.

There’s been a feeling for some time that the early part of Dean’s reign was all about making the most of the resources available to him and trying to keep in touch with the promotion chasers until the transfer window arrived. He’s managed to do that and now he’s got to be trusted to bring in the type of players needed to make up the gap and keep us there.