Villa must revive ‘Perfect 10’ days

VERDICT By Graham Hill

IT was never going to be boring was it?

Villa v Albion in the Play-off semi-finals…. That one was never going to pass off without controversy.

Nerves, mistakes, questionable refereeing, a red card, this had it all.

But probably the only thing it did not have was great football.

Sure, there were some game changing moments – step forward Conor Hourihane.

But the pundits always tell you Play-off football is not like the regular Championship season.

And this game showed you why.

For a start, in the first half at least. It looked like Villa’s players had been kidnapped and replaced with their uncertain twin brothers.

This was not the Villa of recent weeks. You could argue that they played better against Norwich six days earlier with several key men missing.

Dean Smith’s men have been producing some sparkling stuff during a run in March and April which saw them go 12 games unbeaten – including a record breaking 10 wins in a row. That form should have carried on into the Play-offs.

But suddenly, when the pressure was on, they froze – in the first half at least.

The normally reliable Glenn Whelan was making mistakes.

John McGinn was nowhere near as effective as he has been.

Even Jack Grealish took his time getting into the game.

Albion’s approach did not help. They clearly came looking for the draw to set them up nicely at The Hawthorns.

Jed Steer needed to save well from Jay Rodriguez before the break and Gayle made the most of a gift of an opportunity.

But the plan was to stifle Villa’s flair and it almost worked.
Grealish’s obvious excellence had its say with both of Villa’s goals and it showed why he will be a man in demand this summer.

Hourihane’s finish was superb – although are still those who say he should not even have been on the pitch after his part in the Leeds United bust-up.

{By the way, it is looking like a Villa v Leeds final as we speak so get ready for a return match at Wembley).

Grealish is also getting stick for going down too easily for Villa’s penalty – but it is difficult not to point to the spot when the captain drew Keiran Gibbs into a challenge like that.

Albion felt they should have had a penalty and the final controversy of the day came with Gayle’s red card. He cannot now play in the second leg – or Wembley if Baggies turn things around.

That dismissal was like another goal for Villa in the grand scheme of things.

As Smith said afterwards, Baggies will not be able to play as they did at Villa Park. They need at least two goals, and are quite capable of that even without Gayle.

As for Villa, they need to get back to doing what got them to the play-offs in the first place. Even if they finish the job on Tuesday, it was clear to see that Leeds are back on form again with their win at Derby.

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