Villa beat AZ Alkmaar. Dave Woodhall is happy enough.
I’ve always said that if Villa could play every home match midweek we wouldn’t have to bother with trivialities like the Conference League because we’d be at least top four every season. Look back at your favourite Villa Park games and there’s a good chance that the majority have been played out under the floodlights.
The match with Alkmaar won’t figure very highly in most people’s list of Great Villa Memories but it was another step forward and another reminder than no matter how poor the opposition might appear, how easily you beat them a couple of weeks ago, European sides have the habit of being difficult to play against, particularly when their main aim seems to be going home with they point they started with.
We had the usual limited rotation in the starting line-up, with Jhon Duran’s continued absence perhaps showing that if Villa’s transfer strategy over the summer had a flaw it was in the lack of suitable cover up front. If Ollie Watkins gets injured we haven’t got much experience to take his place so maybe this was the game to let Duran have a start.
Not that this should have been a problem tonight, as Clement Lenglet’s header put Villa a goal up inside three minutes. Unfortunately Uefa’s summer strategy didn’t include bringing in some decent officials and so the goal was disallowed for some unfathomable offside. This seemed to knock Villa out of their stride and there seemed little of the purpose that we’ve been used to at home this season. Youri Tielemans, who is improving with every game, had a shot well saved and the visitors had a goal disallowed before the break but this was, of course, the correct decision for a change.
Villa started the second half with a bit more purpose, but a rare Alkmaar break gave them the opening goal and with their defence packed at the best of times, Legia’s win earlier in the day was looking a bit more damaging. Luckily refereeing incompetence knowns no boundaries and Boubacar Kamara, helping out the Alkmaar defence for a moment, was judged to have been a visiting defender for the shot he inadvertently deflected for a Villa corner. The ball was perfect, so was Diego Carlos’ header and Villa were level. It was good to see Carlos getting a goal, not least for the confidence boost after his injury but also because Villa have missed a goalscoring central defender for a good while.
A triple substitution with fifteen minutes to go saw Matty Cash giving the defence a better shape and Douglas Luiz showing everyone that the middle of any pitch he plays on is his territory. This is a player who more than any other I’m looking forward to seeing match himself against the best in Europe over the coming years. With nine minutes to go his chip over the defence was met by Ollie Watkins, whose header was perfectly placed beyond the keeper and proved why Unai Emery picks the team and I don’t.
Two-one was the final score, leaving Villa needing a point from the final two games to qualify for the knockout stages while a decent win against Legia Warsaw should be enough to top the group. It wasn’t a great performance but it was another step on the great road forward.