Analysis: Matt Targett's late winner changes both the result and outlook for Aston Villa
There are few things sweeter than a last-gasp winner, such is their tendency to transform far more than merely the result.
After nearly 97 minutes, including stoppages, of largely frustration and toil against Brighton, just one swing of Matt Targett’s left boot saw the mood inside Villa Park switch in an instant from fractious to euphoric.
Only the third goal of the full-back’s career sparked pandemonium, with Villa’s players jumping over each other and several supporters hurdling hoardings in a bid to join the on-pitch celebrations. A few minutes later, those players exited the field with roars ringing in their ears.
How different things would have been without Targett’s late strike.
For much of the afternoon the story looked like being Villa’s failure, once again, to take advantage when playing against 10 men, not to mention their continued misfortune at the hands of VAR. Yet with Targett’s goal, both were relegated to mere subplots.
Instead, Villa march into perhaps the toughest few weeks of the season to date with the momentum very much behind them, having now recorded back-to-back wins in the Premier League for the first time since May, 2015.
This was also the first time this season they have come from behind to claim victory, while after taking just four points from their opening six league fixtures, they have claimed seven from the next three.
It would be a stretch to say their next two fixtures, against Manchester City and Liverpool, can now be deemed free hits.
No such thing exists in this division and teams who treat meetings with the top two as such risk suffering serious embarrassment, such is the formidable strength of both opponents.
There is undeniably, however, distinctly less pressure on Villa than if Saturday’s match had ended 1-1, a result which would have also left them with just one win in their opening five home fixtures.
Victory meant Dean Smith did not have to face any post-match questions on that subject, though neither did Villa’s boss seek to gloss over his team’s performance, which was arguably their poorest since August.
Then again, after a season in which to this point Villa haven’t always got what they deserved, there was also a sense they were owed a bit of fortune.
Even on Saturday, they had to battle VAR as well as Brighton.
There is surely no other club in the Premier League whose matches have highlighted the faults and limitations of the system more than Villa’s?
Adam Webster’s opening goal for the Seagulls, though deserved when it arrived in the 21st minute, came directly from a free-kick wrongly-awarded by referee David Coote, after Conor Hourihane had pulled off the very definition of a perfectly-timed tackle to dispossess Martin Montoya.
On that occasion, video assistant referee Martin Atkinson was powerless to intervene, yet he would have his say later in the half when Hourihane thought he had fired Villa level.
Despite Coote, his two assistants and the fourth official seeing no infringement, Atkinson deemed Wesley to have impeded Brighton keeper Mat Ryan with a flailing arm and after a lengthy delay, with the teams lined-up ready for kick-off, radioed through from his Stockley Park base to rule the goal out.
Considering the reluctance of VAR to rule on subjective incidents in previous matches, most notably Villa’s late penalty claim for handball in last month’s defeat at Arsenal, this was a particularly infuriating moment for Smith and his players.
One of the biggest positives was the manner of their response in delivering another goal five minutes later, scored by Jack Grealish, which no referee, no matter their location, could disallow.
The goal was Grealish’s second in as many games, while the skipper also laid on the winner for Targett by committing two defenders and then rolling a superbly-weighted pass for the full-back to fire home.
It was in many ways a fitting conclusion to an afternoon when his touch and timing was rarely less than perfect.
At one point in the first-half, Grealish deftly brought down a Brighton cross just yards from his own goal, before then beating a defender to set up a counter-attack.
It was also the captain who dived in to win a loose ball just seconds before Hourihane’s disallowed strike, while on a day when Villa often looked ragged, his calmness in possession stood out.
After a somewhat subdued start to the campaign, Grealish is now beginning to look very much at home in the Premier League. That is something surely not lost on England manager Gareth Southgate, who was once more sitting in the Villa Park stands.
Grealish’s only serious contender for the man-of-the-match prize, at least from a Villa perspective, was goalkeeper Tom Heaton.
The England international’s early Villa career has been steady rather than spectacular, yet the saves he made from Neal Maupay and then Aaron Connolly when Brighton were a goal to the good ended up being pivotal to the win.
At that point, Villa were struggling to find any traction against opponents who oozed confidence in possession. Ultimately, the hosts were given a major helping hand by Brighton’s Aaron Mooy, who dived in recklessly to bring down Grealish to receive his second booking just minutes after his first.
That briefly sparked Villa but in the second half they laboured until being bailed out at the death.
This game was proof, if any were needed, there are no easy games in the Premier League, while also underlining the point that every opponent brings a different challenge.
Smith named the same starting XI for the third straight game but what worked relatively well against Burnley and brilliantly at Norwich was far less effective on the Seagulls, who found acres of space between Villa’s midfield and defence.
The next challenge for Smith is to find a formula to combat Manchester City this Saturday. A trip to the Etihad is Villa’s toughest test of the campaign thus far but thanks to Targett’s goal, it is one they approach in fine spirits.