In the end, the first leg of the play-off semi-final against Middlesbrough resembled several of Aston Villa’s 1-0 winning defensive grinds on their travels this season, including the club’s previous trip to the Riverside. This time though there was an extra sprinkling of tension, due to the high stakes involved.
The first leg was a very good result, considering the dark horse credentials of Middlesbrough to maybe win the play-offs. A big positive was Middlesbrough were limited to snap shots from Britt Assombalonga and only managed two shots on target.
Another tight game is expected at Villa Park, where the first scorers will get a huge injection of belief and fancy their chances.
Solid as a Rock
A 1-0 away leg win is a solid foundation to take back to Villa Park, especially when you consider Middlesbrough form going into the play-offs and how they had beaten several teams with play-off hopes.
Villa’s defensive set-up was excellent, although they did drop deep in the later stages.
This is certainly the best defence Villa have had for a few seasons and hopefully it can be relied on to do a job at Villa Park. If Villa can score at Villa Park, then worst case scenario, it’ll probably go into extra-time, because Boro will be doing very well indeed to score more than two against Terry, Chester, Jedinak and co.
The only issue is who will come in for the injured Ahmed Elmohamady and whether that will become a weakness for Boro to exploit considering their wide threats.
As some of you know, I have followed the NFL team the New York Jets for many years (they serve-up the same pain and unfulfilled dreams as supporting Villa does). The Jets used to have a head coach called Rex Ryan, despite having mixed fortunes on the field, Ryan knew how to give good press conferences and quotes.
Initially, at the Jets, he built a great defence that dragged the team into the play-offs and he once explained the defence’s ethos as: “whatever you do best, we’re going to take away from you”.
It’s pretty much what Villa did with the treat of Adama Traore, Boro’s triple end of season award winner. It was obvious that Traore was Pulis’ ‘Plan A’, but with Alan Hutton switching to which ever flank Traore was on during the game, and Villa doubling-up on the ex-Villa winger, he was neutralised.
Hutton did well, as did the likes of Robert Snodgrass, who tracked back and got stuck in whether Traore looked to go up a gear.
No Away Goals Rule
In the play-offs the away goals rule doesn’t exist. This actually works out well for Villa, because their single away goal doesn’t really trigger any away goals rule advantage anyway.
If Middlesbrough win 1-0 at Villa Park in full-time, then they are level and it’s on to extra-time and penalties. If Middlesbrough win 2-1 or 3-2 at Villa Park, then it would have been advantage Boro.
So, now if Boro do score a couple or more, then they have no extra value, if they end up winning by a single goal.
Villa’s home form on the whole has been pretty good. It’s the third best in the league, after the two teams that got automatic promotion.
There were a couple of silly lapses against Sheffield Wednesday and QPR. “That’s the Championship”, Steve Bruce may say about those. “That’s not turning up on the day”, is the way MOMS would describe them.
When the upper Trinity tier is open and there’s a full house, Villa have tended to perform. The games against the Blues and Wolves were probably the best overall performances and the second half against Derby, showed that we would fancy our chances against them, if our paths crossed in the play-offs (they won’t).
If Villa supporters get involved from the off, then it’ll be a tough night for Boro.
If Villa get past Boro, their reward will be a play-off final against Fulham.
While Fulham had an impressive 23-game unbeaten run towards the end of the season, they were then beaten by both Birmingham and Derby in successive matches.
Consider the last few teams Villa have played at Wembley: Arsenal, Liverpool, Chelsea and Manchester United. I’ll happily take Fulham over any of them.