Aston Villa 0 Middlesbrough 0 - Report
Two sending-offs and a host of missed chances but not, ultimately, the win which would have significantly eased the pressure on Villa boss Steve Bruce.
Despite watching his team dominate, first against ten men following Adama Traore’s fourth minute sending-off, and then later when Henri Lansbury’s dismissal evened up the numbers in the second half, the victory which might have ignited their campaign remained elusive.
Bruce will likely spend the rest of the week wondering how they did not achieve it.
Birkir Bjarnason headed wide from four yards out, Robert Snodgrass hit the bar from close range while Conor Hourihane saw a shot blocked on the line by team-mate Scott Hogan.
Boro keeper Darren Randolph also saved from Henri Lansbury and the returning Jonathan Kodjia, there was no goal, no win and no escaping the feeling this was one big missed opportunity, in a month when club owner Tony Xia has made clear it is results alone which matter.
With teenage winger Andre Green having undergone surgery on a hamstring injury and Tottenham loanee Josh Onomah also sidelined, Bruce was always going to be forced into at least a couple of changes from the team which drew 0-0 with Brentford on Saturday.
Bjarnason moved into left midfield in place of Green for just his second Championship start of the season, while Lansbury was recalled to replace Onomah.
There was also a full Villa debut for West Ham loanee Snodgrass and, most crucially, a return Mile Jedinak following his recovery from groin surgery.
Glenn Whelan dropped to the bench, while James Bree was absent from the squad altogether, as was Gabriel Agbonlahor.
Middlesbrough, 3-0 winners at Bolton last weekend, included former Villa winger Stewart Downing in their starting line-up.
But it was another ex-Villa man Traore who quickly found himself centre of attention, as he was sent-off inside four minutes.
The Portuguese winger’s first touch was booed by the Holte End and perhaps fired up by that, he needlessly dived in on Hourihane on the left flank. Referee James Lillington consulted with his assistant before producing the red card.
It presented a great opportunity for Villa, though it was one they failed to grasp during an opening half played on an increasingly slippery surface.
Lansbury came closest to breaking the deadlock with a delicate volley which Darren Randolph kept out diving to his right. The Villa midfielder tumbled under the keeper’s challenge as he scrambled to stab home the rebound but Lillington waved away the penalty claims.
Randolph also saved a far simpler effort from Snodgrass, while the latter then crossed for Bjarnason to head wide from six yards out as half-time approached. It was a chance the Iceland international really should have converted.
The visitors spent most of the opening period camped in their own half but did go close when Britt Assombalonga headed over Stewart Downing’s cross six yards out.
Bruce made an attacking switch at the break with Albert Adomah and Scott Hogan replacing Jedinak and Bjarnason.
Adomah looked to have played a key role in breaking the deadlock within five minutes when his low cross was palmed straight into the path of Snodgrass eight yards out.
But with the goal at his mercy, the Scotland international hammered his shot against the bar, before Conor Hourihane’s follow-up effort was blocked.
Still Villa pressed and probed without finding a way through and with 26 minutes remaining the game took another twist when Lansbury was dismissed.
Former Kidderminster Harriers winger Marvin Johnson, on as a substitute, escaped through the middle and Lansbury made no attempt to play the ball as he cynically hacked him down.
Kodjia made his appearance with 20 minutes remaining yet it was Boro’s main man, Assombalonga who almost put his team in front with a powerful shot from the edge of the box which forced Villa keeper Sam Johnstone, a spectator for much of the evening prior to then, into a diving save.
Into the final 15 minutes and the agony continued for Villa. Randolph kept out Kodjia’s header with a brilliant save but when the loose ball fell to Hourihane, he looked certain to score only for his low shot to be blocked on the line by Hogan.
Kodjia then headed over a Hourihane’s free-kick as the fates continued to conspire against Villa. The Ivory Coast international’s cameo took another twist when he was booked for diving.
Hourihane had Villa’s final chance deep in stoppage time but volleyed wide after being left unmarked at the far post.
Villa (4-1-4-1) Johnstone, Elmohamady, Chester, Terry ©, Taylor, Jedinak (Adomah HT), Snodgrass, Lansbury, Hourihane, Bjarnason (Hogan HT), Davis (Kodjia 70) Subs not used: Samba, Whelan, Hutton, Steer (gk).
Boro (4-2-3-1) Randolph, Christie, Fry, Gibson, Fabio, Clayton, Leadbitter (Howson 73), Traore, Downing (Johnson HT), Baker, Assombalonga (Fletcher 82) Subs not used: Friend, Shotton, Bamford, Dimi (gk).