Aston Villa and the ancient rites

Villa let in a late equaliser to draw 1-1 at Everton, as Dave Woodhall watches.

As everyone with a passing interest in the Premier League knows and if you don’t, as I remind you twice a season, Villa against Everton is the most-played top-flight game in English football. If you want to go further down the historical road, Villa’s first match started with a half of rugby, and the team’s seeming failure to forget that we don’t play to one of that particular sport’s rules is the main reason why the fixture with Everton very likely won’t be happening next season.

The line=-up was by common consent the best Dean Smith could have put out. For all except the first few minutes Villa were the better side. Douglas Luiz was on his usual recent good form, John McGinn was back to something like his best and Conor Hourihane did what he does well. Unfortunately the chances that came were squandered, because no matter how much improved Villa might have been in the last couple of games, goals are always going to be hard to come by.

Two substitutions are made, and with eighteen minutes to go an inch-perfect cross by Hourihane is touched in by Ezri Konsa to give Villa what could have proved to be the most important lead of the season. That word ‘substitutions’ is important, because as soon as Villa went a goal up, Everton brought on two sets of fresh legs and the difference was noticeable.

But there was still time for the turning point in the game, when Anwar El Ghazi ran perfectly onto another deep cross, this time from Jack Grealish. The goal was wide open and glory beckoned but whether he was caught in two minds, the onrushing Everton defenders put him off, or the ball was deflected via a small winged insect, El Ghazi’s attempt at a side-footed finish was horribly miscued and ended up way over the bar.

Had it gone in the match was over but Everton took heart and pushed forward. One good chance was missed with four minutes to go and surely this was the time to start running down the clock. There were still three substitutes available, eleven players to fake injury, four corners to hold the ball up in and at least as many row Zs to belt it into. But none of these options were taken, a cross wasn’t cut out and Theo Walcott was able to put over the most speculative header of his career.

Konsa may turn out to be a quality defender in time but he’ll never be an acrobat and his aerial attempt to clear the ball only succeeded in knocking it a foot over the line. One-one and that was the way it finished, because Villa don’t do last-minute dramatics at the right end. I haven’t the heart to work it out, but if football matches lasted as long as rugby and we didn’t have to endure the final ten minutes I’m sure Villa would have been safe long ago.

You can blame Smith for not changing the gameplan going into the final stages, El Ghazi for the miss, whoever should have been dealing with the fateful Everton cross and Walcott’s header (which wasn’t the first time Pepe Reina seemed to get caught out in a similar position) and/or a combination of all of them. But the end result is the same – Villa’s failure to once more win a game that was theirs for the taking means that the Championship is now almost certain when it could have been ‘only’ very likely.