Monday analysis: No Jack Grealish? No problem for Aston Villa with play-off charge now a true team effort
No Jack Grealish? No problem for Villa.
At least that was the case on Saturday when, their influential captain absent due to illness, Dean Smith’s team tightened their grip on fifth place in the Championship by beating Bristol City for their eighth consecutive win.
Not since 1975, when Ron Saunders was in the dugout, has that happened. Back then the season finished with Villa winning promotion to the top flight and there is a growing belief, among an increasingly excited fanbase, history could be about to repeat itself.
Of course there is plenty of hard work left to be done. There will no doubt be several more twists and turns to come during the final weeks of a campaign Smith and his players hope will last another seven games. Yet Villa right now wear the look of a team simply refusing to be stopped. Whatever obstacle is thrown in their way, they find a way to overcome it.
They had arguably faced none greater than finding themselves again without Grealish, the man whose return from injury last month helped inspire their transformation from mid-table irrelevance to the team no-one wants to face.
The test was more mental than anything else for players who, for weeks, have listened to critics proclaim their success as being down solely to one man.
No-one can say that now after Saturday. Villa might not have had Grealish but they still had far too much for a Robins outfit who had arrived in the Midlands sitting just a place and a point behind them in the table.
Tammy Abraham and Conor Hourihane got the goals in what was comfortably their best performance without Grealish since the first-half showing against Leeds back in December.
Were it not for a superb solo display by visiting goalkeeper Max O’Leary, the winning margin would have been considerably greater but while Famara Diedhiou’s goal for the visitors 16 minutes from time ensured a tenser finish than desired, an equaliser never looked on the cards.
In Grealish’s absence, the rest of Villa’s midfield stepped up to fill the breach. Glenn Whelan, who returned to the team and took the armband, might not have the same flair as his younger team-mate but more than makes up for it in his determination and will to win.
Hourihane, alongside him, would on another day against a less-inspired goalkeeper have scored a hat-trick, while John McGinn delivered another of those performances which had supporters singing his name as they filed out into the streets.
You could pretty much take your pick when choosing a man-of-the-match and therein lies the real truth. The biggest factor in Villa winning this game and the reason they are on their best run for 44 years is that what Grealish started against Derby all those weeks ago has now grown into something far, far bigger than just one player.
This is now a true team, or to be more precise squad effort, in which nearly every member has at some point played their part.
With Kortney Hause and Tyrone Mings also missing, Mile Jedinak on Saturday became the fifth different player to start at centre-back during Villa’s winning run.
The Australian international, still a major voice in the dressing room, has on a personal level endured a frustrating season to this point. But after being given the chance to contribute, it was no surprise to see him grasp it.
He was aided, on the left side of defence, by the latest stellar showing from Neil Taylor, who but for O’Leary might have scored his first league goal for nine years.
Henri Lansbury and Keinan Davis, two players who have had to bide their time, meanwhile got the chance to help bring the victory home, the latter adding his name to the long list to be foiled by the visiting keeper.
It is still less than two months since Villa were comprehensively beaten at home by Albion. Back then the talk was of a dressing room divided and players preoccupied by individual aims. Now, firmly united and targeting a common goal, they might take some stopping.
Bolton will be the next to try on Friday as Villa look to equal the all-time club record of nine straight league wins, last reached in 1910.
The Trotters could be relegated with defeat and for all their off-field troubles will not make life easy for Smith’s men. Neither will Millwall, who visit Villa Park next Monday.
For Villa the prize of winning both games would be the likely securing of a play-off spot, with a piece of club history thrown in for good measure.
The biggest prize, promotion, remains further down the line but is beginning to feel more achievable with each passing result.