First Team 21/01/2020

Match Report: Aston Villa 2-1 Watford

By Kevin Affleck

Well, that was a body blow. 

Just when it looked like the Hornets were about to add another point to the tally, when it looked like they would keep their revival bubbling along just nicely, Villa delivered a hammer blow, winning the battle between third bottom and fourth bottom with virtually the last kick of the game. It was cruel, extremely cruel and you just had to see the way Craig Cathcart stormed 30 yards from the penalty area, chuntering and cursing to see how much Tyrone Mings' late, late goal hurt. 

The players trudged disconsolately from the pitch at full-time, unable to fathom how they didn't leave here with at least a point. Now we will see what this group are really made of. How they bounce back from this defeat, how they cope with this set-back will go a long way to shaping how the rest of the season pans out. They say you learn plenty in adversity and Nigel Pearson will now find out the true DNA of this group. 

Pearson will be the first admit that his team weren't quite at their best here, that they looked a touch leggy and didn't provide a compelling case to have won all three points. But to leave here with absolutely nothing was harsh, particularly as they looked in control for so long. They needed to either record a ninth clean sheet of the season or kill the game with a second having gone one up five minutes before half-time. They surely would have done had Pepe Reina not pulled off a save to deny Troy Deeney a second on 55 minutes. It was a match-turning intervention from the Spaniard as it would have been game, set and match had that one got in. 

The script looked written for Deeney for a while here. The captain just loves the big games, loves it when there is an opportunity to prove some people wrong and silence others. He did it again in the bear pit of Villa Park, scoring his sixth in four games in front of the lot who give him the most stick, providing the perfect riposte at the same time to the penalty miss on Saturday.

He will have enjoyed the goal he headed in after 40 minutes here, and celebrated like he did, but the ultimate team player would have much preferred to not have scored and ended up on the winning side or even with a point. His fifth of the season will count for very little right now. 

It was hard to know what else Pearson could have done. You could certainly not accuse the Head Coach of not going for all three as he threw on Ignacio Pussetto and Andre Gray after Villa had equalised on 68 minutes. He then sensed which way the wind was blowing towards the end and smartly chucked on Christian Kabasele to stiffen the defence, but, for once, his tactical move didn't work as Villa somehow found a way through a congested penalty box to conjure up a riotous winner. It was just one of those evenings. 

It was a shame, a real shame as the first half was a defensive triumph and one for connoisseurs of the art of back-line play. The four at the back were terrific, operating as a cohesive unit and working in complete unison. Adam Masina and Craig Dawson were very good, with Masina into his work early after a thundering headed challenge on Frederic Guilbert, but the excellent Cathcart and the redoubtable Adrian Mariappa were exceptional. They read the game superbly, made interception after interception and did the no-nonsense sort of job you want at a place like this and on a night like this. Mariappa's high point came when he telegraphed a short free-kick from Jack Grealish and crashed into a tackle with Trézéguet. 

There wasn't much happening at the other end, say apart from Roberto Pereyra smashing one straight into the face of Tyrone Mings, but the first half was all about gaining control of the game, silencing the home crowd and showing there was going to be no way through. The team executed it to the letter. 

That solid base allowed the team to, slowly but surely, venture forward, which they did tentatively at first without the lightning pace of Ismaïla Sarr to stretch the play in the blink of an eye. The approach play was more considered this time, more slowly, slowly catchy monkey, a tactic that reaped rewards just before half-time. Gerard Deulofeu got down the right and chipped over a beautifully-weighted cross for Deeney to power home. It was a classic away-team goal. 

With the seal broken, a second almost followed before the break but Deulofeu, having escaped down the right, could only find the side-netting with his left foot. He might, on reflection, have considered going for the far corner or pulling one back, but then he has scored from those sort of angles before. 

Deulofeu and Deeney almost combined again 10 minutes into the second half, with the Spaniard's cross falling into the path of the captain who forced a star-fish save from Reina. It was like when the pair combined so well at Cardiff. 

The second goal is always needed in games as close as these as it gives you that breathing space and ability to weather a mini rally, the sort Villa staged when Douglas Luiz scored on 68 minutes. Grealish weaved his way across the box, Matt Targett forced a great one-handed save from Foster and there was the Brazilian to slam the rebound into the roof of the net. Villa Park erupted. 

It was now game on and the match was very much in the balance. There were a couple of very handy interventions from Cathcart and Capoue, Gray was whisker away from putting Deulofeu in the clear while Mings was extremely fortunate not to be sent off for a second yellow card for a handball when Deulofeu was ready to streak clear. 

It was helter-skelter stuff and Pearson sought to shut things down by bringing on Kabasele at the death for insurance purposes. It didn't work as Konsa found a slither of space to crash in a dramatic winner, via a deflection off Mings.

The roof nearly came off the Holte End. It was a big goal and they knew it. Exactly how big we'll find out in the next few weeks. 

HORNETS: Foster; Mariappa, Dawson, Cathcart, Masina; Capoue, Chalobah (Pussetto 75), Doucouré; Deulofeu (Kabasele 90), Deeney (C), Pereyra.

Subs not used: Gomes, Pedro, Gray, Quina, Holebas.

First Team 21/01/2020

Pearson: “We Don't Take Anything For Granted”

By Kevin Affleck

Nigel Pearson will not be hyping up the significance of the game with Aston Villa to his players, believing the team simply need to continue with the approach that has served them so well during the club's longest unbeaten run in the Premier League.

The Hornets are unbeaten in six games, eclipsing the run they went on in November and December in their first season in the Premier League, and the Head Coach does not plan to alter what has worked so far just because it pitches third bottom against fourth bottom.

“I said before the Bournemouth and Villa games, both sides want to win for sure,” he said. “They are also games in which we don't want to get beat. That's pretty much stating the obvious. Whenever you play sides in and around you, the benefits of winning are huge. We go into the game with the intention of trying to win the game. It will be another big game for us, but they all have quite a bit of significance. We have to manage the game and not get bogged down in how they [the games] are built up because the players have to go and perform. That's the bottom line, really.”

Pearson showed his intention to go for broke, to risk defeat when trying to win, by bringing on both Ignacio Pussetto and Roberto Pereyra on Saturday. His front-foot approach has yielded four wins in six matches, including a 3-0 win over Villa. 

“We know what they are about and they know what we are about,” he said. “Every game presents a slightly different challenge... but yes, we know we performed well on the day [against Villa at Vicarage Road]. We won the game because we deserved the win. We don't take anything for granted and I don't buy into the thought that just because something happened weeks ago, that it happens again.

“We have to earn the right to win games and get on top of any game. They will want to reverse that result. We are both in difficult situations. They'll be up for the fight, there is no doubt about that. I keep saying that we have to make sure our own performance is right and look to improve the standards we are setting at the moment. But we've been very pleased with how the players have approached games and how they dealt with different situations in different matches. This will be a big challenge and one I'm sure the players look forward to.”

There will be no-one more pumped for this one than Troy Deeney. He loves playing at Villa Park, in front of the fans who give him so much stick for being a Birmingham fan. 

“He's motivated,” said Pearson. “He didn't convert the penalty at the weekend, but I think he thrives on the pressure. He enjoys being involved in a challenge and I think that's a big part of his character. He continues to have a big role to play in turning our fortunes around. I'm pleased he's available and if he does a get a lively reception, it's something he'll thrive on.”

Jack Grealish is Villa's talisman and he gave Deeney his shirt after the game at Vicarage Road. The Hornets did a good job on the Villa captain at Vicarage Road and will need to keep him quiet at Villa Park.

“We know he is a very important and talented player for them,” said Pearson, “We know all about him and have obvious respect for him, but I'm concentrating on our own players. It's important we understand our opponents and what we are going to come up against and understand how they play. The most important thing is how to improve ourselves... defending very resolutely as a team... and to create goalscoring opportunities. The game will be similar [to the game at Vicarage Road] and we have to manage the game as it happens. We know Grealish is an important player for them.”

Pearson has been involved in relegation scraps with Southampton, West Brom, Carlisle and Leicester and has emerged on the right side each time. He knows what it takes to navigate your way out of trouble and is fully prepared for this one to go to the wire.

“Whether it does or it doesn't, I can't tell at the moment,” he said, “but we have to be prepared for that. I said from the start, that if we get a chance on the last day of the season [to stay up], that will be something to look forward to. You have to reassess it as you go and there are clearly benefits of getting out of the situation earlier... but you've got to be prepared for the duration of the season. You manage the pressure, the expectation and get a group of players who are able to go out on the field and perform to their best. That's really the focus for us.”