Monday Analysis: Big players come to the party and give Aston Villa the edge in play-off semi-final
For all the caveats which undoubtedly apply when a two-legged tie is at the halfway point, it is definitely a case of so far, so good for Villa.
It would be an exaggeration to claim Saturday’s 1-0 win at Middlesbrough has left Steve Bruce and his team with one foot in the play-off final.
But they will certainly head into tomorrow night’s semi-final second leg as favourites to progress through to the Wembley showpiece later this month.
Bruce is far too experienced to take anything for granted and could be found, within minutes of the final whistle at The Riverside Stadium, throwing forth the familiar and trusted cliche about the tie only being at half-time.
There could be no mistaking, however, the delight written across the manager’s face at what he had just witnessed.
The result was, obviously, an excellent one. Yet the manner with which it was achieved was arguably even more pleasing.
Since he first walked through the doors of Villa Park 19 months ago, Bruce has set about building a team to handle occasions such as these. Boy, did they do just that, in the most important game of his reign to date.
Calm, collected and almost always in control, Villa were more than worthy of their victory. Were it not for the reflexes of Middlesbrough keeper Darren Randolph, they would likely have been heading home with an even larger advantage.
Just as Bruce had banked on, all the big names came to the party and contributed to what, above all else, was a supreme team effort.
Mile Jedinak rewarded the manager’s decision to pick him ahead of Glenn Whelan by glancing home the only goal, before spending the rest of the game bossing the middle of the park to protect the lead.
Jack Grealish, meanwhile, delivered the kind of performance expected from a player of such quality, setting up Jedinak with a perfectly-weighted corner and using whatever possession Villa had wisely. The 22-year-old looked dangerous every time he got on the ball.
Yet while Grealish shone, the biggest plaudits were reserved for a man who may well be playing his final games for the club.
Much of the pre-match talk had focused on the excellent form of Boro’s Adama Traore and the threat he would pose to Villa, the club he left in 2016. In reality, the Spanish winger had virtually no impact on proceedings, thanks in large part to the masterclass in man-marking carried out by Alan Hutton.
Wherever Traore went, Hutton was there, nagging at his heels, even switching wings in the second half when the former Barcelona starlet sought an escape on the other side of the pitch.
By then Villa already had the upper hand courtesy of Jedinak’s superbly-placed header from their first corner of the game.
A goal which at first glance appeared relatively simple, on closer inspection even further encapsulated the collective effort, with Lewis Grabban distracting Ben Gibson to the extent the Boro skipper moved away from his position on the far post, allowing the ball safe passage into the net. In a tie which features two exceptionally strong defences, it felt a significant moment.
Bruce has understandable reason for caution. After all, it is barely two months since Villa followed up an emotional victory over Wolves with an insipid defeat to QPR just 72 hours later.
The lessons of that night must now be heeded, as Villa look to take another decisive step back toward the Premier League.