Aston Villa and seeing the old one out

Villa beat Burnley while Dave Woodhall reflects on the match and the year.

After a couple of weeks of memorable victory, disappointing draw and annoying defeat, playing Burnley at home should have been the opportunity to get back to normality with a routine win over relegation candidates. Unai Emery certainly though that would be the case by playing an attack-minded 4-4-2 with Ollie Watkins partnered by Moussa Diaby up front.

It certainly started off to plan with a couple of missed chances before Ollie Watkins found Leon Bailey, who made space to score Villa’s opener after 28 minutes. One-nil and it should have been the first of many. Which it was, but not in the way expected, because almost from the restart they conceded a textbook Villa goal from a free-kick. More chances were missed then three minutes before half-time Watkins created another, this time for Diaby to tap in.

I say three minutes before half-time, but there was such a lengthy VAR check that it was closer to a quarter of an hour before the whistle to end the half. It seems as though we say it every week but these lengthy debates are sucking all the joy and spontaneity out of football – rarely has a capacity crowd celebrated in such a low-key way because everyone in the ground knew that these days the ball crossing the line is just a basis for negotiation. But it makes good television and that’s all that matters.

Two-one at half time should have been the cue for a straightforward second half, particularly after a sending-off reduced Burnley to ten men. However, while the team might have been transformed beyond all recognition in 2023 there’s still something in the Villa psyche that means we’re incapable of doing things the easy way. Watkins and Jacob Ramsey both missed chances which were made worse by a bit of poor marking and a shot that Emiliano Martinez should have done better with. This certainly wasn’t part of the script.

With eight/eighteen minutes to go Jhon Duran replaced Diaby. He might not have the same ability but he’s always a handful and managed to win the sort of penalty that big clubs at big grounds get when he was challenged by Aaron Ramsey, who should ask his brother for a share of the win bonus. Up stepped Douglas Luiz, who was so confident he managed to hit the crossbar twice before the ball bounced over the line to give Villa the lead and took us to second in the table, level on points with Liverpool.

It might not have been the most convincing performance of the season but look again at the last part of the previous sentence and remember how far we’ve come in twelve months. Even more remarkable is the fact that while other clubs have complained bitterly about injuries, Villa have suffered just as many, arguably to more important players, and got on with it. We’ve got the best goalkeeper in the world, a midfield trio I wouldn’t swap for any other and Leon Bailey has been transformed from erratic at best to the sort of player who in less celebrity-driven times would have supporters turning up just to watch him.

That was 2023. God knows what we’ll look like by the end of next year.