What a difference a year makes; from staring down the barrel of relegation to sitting ninth in the League with an exciting team and real hope for the return of the good times. Add to the mix COVID – 19, Project Restart and the drama at West Ham on the last day of the season and its been quite a year.
It’s been 10 years since we last won the game immediately before Christmas in the EPL (we did win away 0-1 at QPR in 2006) and our opponents then, as now, were Albion; Villa winning 2-1 at Villa Park. Villa finished 9th that year (48 points), Albion ending the year in 11th place. O’Niell had resigned in August and Gerard Houllier came in to replace him although he only remained in charge for nine months, suffering a second heart attack which forced him to retire from management. Sadly, football lost a truly knowledgeable and good man with his passing this year.
Even before the dismissal of Livermore, Albion looked a poor side and were well beaten; I would even suggest that the 0-3 score line flattered them. Had Watkins goal not been (unfairly – in my opinion) disallowed by VAR then I think the defeat would have been much heavier. Whilst generally a critic of VAR it was correct in asking Atkinson to review the tackle by Livermore on Grealish. It was serious foul play; a deliberate and dangerous lunge at the player over the top of the ball.
Although Hause’ subsequent tackle was clumsy, it was not dangerous, nor was it delivered with any deliberate or malicious intent; a yellow being the correct decision. Big Sam has a massive job on his hands!
Once again we demonstrated that when we score the first goal and the opposition have to come at us, we are an extremely dangerous attacking side that will score goals. We do have (unusually for an EPL side?) a number of players who are very comfortable running with the ball and are encouraged to do so which causes problems for defenders. Not only that, as Tony Gayle observed, ‘Villa are a very watchable side’ – although the media in general appear to prefer Leeds!
I was pleased for El Ghazi, disappointed for Watkins and encouraged by Traore’s display – even if his right foot is just for standing on. OK, not very charitable of me, but to become a really influential player he needs to work on improving his ability to use both feet (other than for running that is!). Having said that his goal was pure class.
Games now coming thick and fast – Crystal Palace up next then Chelsea and Manure away by the turn of the year.
Palace travel to VP on the back of a 0-7 home drubbing by Liverpool. Most unusual for a Roy Hodgson side to collapse in this way and so I’m not sure what to think or expect, particularly given our own poor home form and the indications that there is no such thing as home advantage in this strange fanless season. Palace don’t have a great record at Villa Park, nor are they prolific in front of goal, but they do have an excellent Boxing Day record having only been beaten in two of their last ten Boxing Day games and winning their last three away from home.
Will they sit deep and try and catch us on the counter attack – something that has worked well for teams visiting VP of late. They do have Saha and our old ‘friend’ Benteke is back after being suspended against Liverpool, Cahill is out with a hamstring and they have a number of other notable injuries.
Barkley is expected to be fit, as is Konsa, and whilst Hause did an excellent job in the last two games I feel that Konsa’s mobility and all round ability will be better suited to this game. If Barkley can pick up where he left off before injury and re-establish his link up play with Grealish then he will undoubtedly strengthen us and create problems for Palace.
Who drops out for Barkley – El Ghazi or Traore? Glad I’m not Dean Smith on that one although it’s a nice problem to have. On balance, I think it will be Traore but then what do I know?
That’s enough rambling – have a great Christmas and let’s hope Boxing Day brings another day of cheer.