Aston Villa have a first-leg advantage to defend in the return match of their Championship playoff semi-final away to Midlands rivals West Bromwich Albion (8pm Tuesday, live on Sky Sports).
West Brom took an early lead through Dwight Gayle at Villa Park on Saturday and did a solid job of frustrating their hosts for the majority of the match. Villa came on strong in the final quarter-hour and two goals in quick succession saw them come away with a 2-1 win.
Jack Grealish had been prodding and probing at the West Brom defence throughout and finally got his reward with involvement in both of the goals. For the first, he drew defenders to him before finding substitute Conor Hourihane in space to fire home from outside the area. On the second, he was chopped down for the penalty converted by Tammy Abraham.
Grealish has been a key figure for Villa throughout the season. His importance to the side was made painfully clear in his three-month absence through injury from December through early March. In that time, Villa had the seventh worst record in the division, picking up just 13 points from 13 matches. From his return through to the end of the season, they had the best record in the Championship with 31 points from 10 wins, one draw and one defeat.
Villa entered the playoffs as the fifth-place finishers, but the way they concluded the campaign suggested they would be a good bet for promotion. Saturday’s win was far from a vintage performance, as coach Dean Smith was quick to admit afterwards. His side, the division’s second highest scorers – at 1.82 per match – since he replaced Steve Bruce in mid-October, were unable to get things going in attack to the degree they would have liked.
They did, though, still emerge with an advantage to carry into Tuesday’s return, and the reality is that results are all that matter at this stage. A goal down, West Brom cannot afford to play as cautiously in the second leg and that could well end up providing Villa with more space to express themselves in attack.
It will be a difficult balancing act to strike for Smith’s opposition number James Shan. He was happy with the way his side executed their game plan on Saturday. While he was disappointed with the way in which the two goals were conceded, he felt that limiting Villa as they had up until that point demonstrated the validity of their approach. He will, though, have to construct a more offensively minded setup at the Hawthorns.
West Brom’s hopes of producing a comeback will be reduced by the absence through suspension of Gayle, the team’s top scorer. The forward’s dismissal for two bookable offences was one of a few decisions that Shan and West Brom felt didn’t go their way at Villa Park. Given his importance to the side, it might just prove to be the most damaging of all of them.
West Brom didn’t end the regular season quite as well as Villa, but they still had the fourth-best record in the division from the point at which Shan took caretaker charge from the sacked Darren Moore in mid-March. While the team’s numbers at both ends of the pitch remained more or less constant under Shan, they did pick up more points per match (1.9 vs. 1.69 under Moore) during his 10 matches at the helm.
It is, though, hard to construct a compelling argument on the side of West Brom being able to overturn their first-leg deficit. Without their 25-goal top scorer, against a Villa side in excellent form and with the necessary weapons to strike on the counter-attack if West Brom begin to commit numbers forward, they are now the underdogs to progress to the final.
Our Preview’s Aston Villa vs West Bromwich Albion Betting Tips Verdict
Not only are Villa worthy of their heavily odds-on status as favourites with our top rated British online bookies to make it through, but they can be expected to book their place in the Wembley final against Derby or Leeds with an away win at the Hawthorns on Tuesday.
- Bet on Aston Villa to win @ best odds of 7/4 with Bet365.