Aston Villa 2 West Brom 1
After a first leg at Villa Park that was full of drama and controversy, the Baggies find themselves a goal down ahead of Tuesday’s second leg knowing that their leading scorer will play no further part in this season.
While the game is all about goals, the main talking point from the match was the performance of referee, Graham Scott. As an Elite List official, you expect him to get the key decisions correct, but he made two huge errors at Villa Park, both of which could prove to be crucial as to who gets promoted to the Premier League.
The most important was the second yellow card for Dwight Gayle. It’s arguable that the first yellow was somewhat harsh, given for time-wasting with still half an hour to play. The second, however, was entirely wrong. Gayle had to go for the ball as James Morrison whipped the ball across and, as he realised he wasn’t going to reach the ball, he pulls his legs into his body to ensure the ‘keeper doesn’t get injured as his momentum meant that a collision was inevitable.
The ridiculous rule that a red card resulting from two yellows cannot be appealed means that Gayle is suspended for the second leg, and his suspension earlier in the season means that he will also miss the final should Albion get there.
Scott also missed a clear push on Mason Holgate in the box a few minutes earlier, with Tammy Abraham seeming to feign injury to cover up his obvious misdemeanour.
As for the game itself, it was an excellent performance from Albion for 70 minutes at least, and they didn’t do a lot wrong after that. Shan opted to put Matt Phillips in the middle three rather than Harper as I expected – maybe Harper’s poor performance at Derby last week was a factor in that decision.
Defensively, Albion were superb in the first half while retaining a threat on the break. Rodriguez almost put Albion in front but his effort was superbly saved by Jed Steer, before Gayle capitalised on an error from Glenn Whelan to put the Baggies ahead on 16 minutes. An incredibly disciplined display kept the hosts very quiet for the remainder of the half.
Dawson had to be withdrawn at half time, although it is hoped he will be available for Tuesday’s game, with Tyrone Mears coming on. Albion were perhaps a little deeper after the break and Villa dominated possession. There were few clear cut chances, however, until Conor Hourihane replaced Whelan. His strike was wonderful but he had a huge amount of space on the edge of the box. If anyone was to blame from a Baggies point of view, it was perhaps Stefan Johansen who followed the ball into the box rather than staying aware of Hourihane’s position.
As for the penalty, it was a little rash from Gibbs knowing who he was tackling, but I’m not sure how much contact he actually made with Grealish. Villa’s star player was definitely on his way down before the challenge was made – I guess there is a possibility that he may be charged with successful deception of a match official and, therefore, be ruled out of the second leg, but I’d be surprised.
One substitution that has come in for some scrutiny was Shan’s decision to replace Matt Phillips with Jacob Murphy. Phillips didn’t have his best game from an attacking point of view and, given that it was the first game he has started since Moore was sacked, I wasn’t surprised that he was withdrawn. Murphy, however, did not show the same discipline and I wonder whether James Morrison might have been a better option. I can understand wanting to keep pace in the side, but Murphy hasn’t really impressed this season and we know that Mozza will always do a job.
Shan and his coaching team now have some difficult decisions to make ahead of Tuesday’s second leg. Albion have won games without Gayle this season but, in all but one of those games, Hal Robson-Kanu has started but the Welshman is also suspended having been sent off at Derby last week.
Phillips would seem the obvious choice to put up front alongside Rodriguez, but Jacob Murphy, Kyle Edwards and even youngsters such as Rayhaan Tulloch, who made his first team debut at Brighton in January, or Morgan Rogers could be a consideration. It would be a massive call to include one of those, but when two of your key strikers are unavailable, and you need at least two goals, all options are on the table.
We, as fans, need to make the Hawthorns as intimidating as possible and try to recreate the amazing atmosphere of the night of 19th May 1993 which pushed Albion to Wembley with a 2-0 victory over Swansea City having lost the first leg 2-1. The hope is still there that the Baggies can upset the odds and prevent the “dream final” that all the pundits and neutrals seem to want to see.