By Graham Hill
FORMER Villa midfielder Paul Merson admits he was surprised at the team Villa boss Dean Smith fielded at Leeds on Sunday.
Smith made three changes but did not weaken his team in any way for a match which turned out to be one of the most controversial games ever.
Merson was surprised to see skipper Jack Grealish playing at Elland Road.
Grealish was a target for Leeds and could easily have picked up another injury.
John McGinn also played despite knowing that two more bookings in the regular Championship season would put him out of the play-offs.
And when the Scot collected another yellow card in the game but was not substituted, McGinn risked another caution in the dying minutes.
Merson, speaking on The Debate Show on Sky Sports Football on Monday, said: “Seriously, I couldn’t believe how much was on the game.“I’m thinking, right, Villa are going to turn up here and Jack Grealish isn’t going to play, a couple of others might not play – and everybody played!”
He was astonished that the game was played with so much intensity considering Villa had already qualified for the play-offs and Leeds could only overhaul Sheffield United for second spot if they won by a cricket score.
But it is worth remembering Smith’s pre-match comments.
Firstly, he knew that putting out an obviously weakened side risked breaking EFL rules.
Preparing for the game, Smith would not have known the outcome of the Sheffield United v Ipswich game. And, had Leeds scored a hatful against a less than interested Villa, then the Blades would have complained.
Secondly, Smith wanted to win to keep the pressure on West Brom.
Had Villa won, they would have been two points behind Baggies going into the final round of games which sees Albion going to play-off chasing Derby and Smith’s men hosting already-promoted Derby.
Fourth spot means playing the second leg of the Play-off semi-final with home advantage. As it is, Villa look certain to be playing at The Hawthorns for a place at Wembley