aston villa 1-1 leeds united: can’t dream a dreamBack
Leeds United’s recent theme has been coping with the changes injuries throw at them, but one area that has remained blessedly unchanged has been the defence. Since Pontus Jansson arrived, it has picked itself.
Until recently. Charlie Taylor’s achilles (and possibly his other achilles heel, a potential move in January) has brought Gaetano Berardi into the side; a popular and committed player, who was soon pleasingly toe-to-toe with most of Aston Villa’s players, but not necessarily a left-back.
At Villa the formidable backline was eroded further as the thinking man’s Pontus, Kyle Bartley, gave in to a minor knee injury, replaced by the theoretically solid Liam Cooper. Nowt against Coops, but Leeds have come along way since last season, and his reintroduction at the same time as Berardi felt like it could be too much of a retrograde step.
Within minutes of kick-off, Kalvin Phillips had planted a no look pass to Kodjia inside the penalty area; last season business. Jansson thundered across to put ball (and man, if he’d thought he could get away with it) into the stands. This season business.
That early warning was a sign of Aston Villa’s intention: they attacked fearsomely, with high tempo, in the opening minutes. Within five minutes Phillips had given the ball to Kodjia again, this time outmuscled in midfield, but Robert Green saved the shot.
Kalvin, the head-shaking story of the first quarter hour, Phillips. But then, what are captains like Liam Bridcutt for if not to get a young player like Phillips by the scruff of the ‘fro, and get him through a game like this? Unfortunately Bridcutt is finding his way back into the Championship again, and his own play was his own first worry.
The main concern soon became getting Pontus Jansson through the game. He went down with nobody around him, presumably a delayed effect from blocking Kodjia’s early chance, which was preferable to his knee going at least. He kept going, but now nerves about the continued beating of our heart were added to worries about the players finding a performance to match Villa’s.
Leeds struggled for that performance in the first half an hour but did at least calm Villa down and create an attacking chance of their own; Villa had several, though, but none too dangerous. Looping headers wide, half chances cleared off their toes by Luke Ayling, that sort of thing. United arguably had better of things, with Hadi Sacko and Ayling chasing lost causes down the right to cause their trademark brand of moderate chaos.
Aston Villa obviously have a thing about a fast start, and after Ross McCormack nostalgically replaced Jack Grealish, who had been eased out of the game by Jansson, they again set about pinning United in their own back third at the start of the second half, while pinging the ball into the penalty area with threatening pace.
Which made the opening goal sweetly inevitable. From a Stuart Dallas corner Pontus Janssn’s near post header was right at Mark Bunn, but so powerful it went into the net anyway, and Pontus went as far into the away fans as he dared without a booking. Moments later Jansson nearly did magically better, controlling the ball from another Dallas corner and giving it a leisurely Yeboahing off the crossbar; Dallas departed after that and Pablo Hernandez came on, nutmegs flaming, United in the lead, getting stronger.
Leeds got stronger still when Chris Wood replaced Kemar Roofe, sending Souleymane Doukara out wide and preparing for any kind of attempt on the game from Villa, who looked dazed at being behind and unable to thread any attacks together. United had recognised that disruption and counter was their best approach, keeping the game under control. With Hernandez on the pitch to shuffle between defenders and attempt lobs, Leeds held outbursts of creativity in reserve.
And then Villa, unbeaten at home all season, their last five home games wins, got an unromantic penalty when the ball hit Cooper’s flailing arm and the linesman saw what the referee missed. Kodjia, waiting to score all game, scored this. It would be unfair to single out Liam Cooper on his return, especially when he played so well; but this sort of self-inflicted disappointment felt a lot like last season business, when Cooper often played well, too. Our luck.
It wasn’t over. Hadi Sacko, who loves a tussle, won a tussle and charged through on goal; but his shot, like Jansson’s earlier, looped and hit the crossbar. Green charged down Kodjia to stop him scoring again when he broke through, the ball bouncing up for a half-volley that Green blocked with his shoulder. Ayling and Jansson tried to force a corner in; Kodjia shot wide at the other end. A poor freekick by Hernandez allowed another Villa break that was expertly intercepted by Kalvin Phillips’ overhead kick, Phillips suddenly more comfortable with familiar old Ronaldo Vieira alongside him.
Then it was over, and the point no team has come away from Villa Park with in the five previous games looked small and disappointing like a Christmas Toblerone. Questions inevitably creep in, questions that would never have been thought of had Leeds held out; would Bartley have kept his arms sternly by his side? What if we’d played the first half like the second? What if Jansson’s volley had gone under the bar? Actually, we would have asked that whatever the result.
But this was like the Liverpool game with the bonus of a league point, that took United above Huddersfield thanks to an almost absurdly large goal difference of plus seven, and a luxurious points total of 42. So a dream didn’t quite come true at Villa Park; that’s disappointing. But we’re talking about dreams within dreams, here, and that’s a great conversation to be having. We’ll take it.