Pessimism pulses through the veins of every ardent Villa fan. To expect anything other than defeat detracts from what it means to wear the claret and blue of the Brummie club; suffering has become part and parcel of a Villan’s existence. Fate has cruelly conspired against us on more occasions than not, typically between 85 and 94 minutes of a football match. We’ve become the masters of losing leads and losing heads as Carlos Sanchez invariably fells an opponent on the edge of the box. I am a keen hygiene freak, but the main reason for keeping my fingernails short is to avoid biting them through stubborn spells of rear-guard action, spells which can span an entire match. Still, here we are on the brink of FA Cup glory, but rest assured the road to potential success has been a long one.
I vividly remember seeing Villa in the flesh for the first time on a crisp, but dry autumnal afternoon in 1998. Nottingham Forest stood between John Gregory’s side and three precious points; it was an experience that would prepare me for the roller-coaster life of a Villa fan thereafter. It took little over half an hour to fall behind; Chris Bart-Williams was credited with the forgettable 32nd minute opener. With the half-time whistle fast approaching, disaster struck again for my six-year old self. Already a goal down, my misery was compounded by Dougie Freedman’s pile-driver that surprised just about everybody in the ground. It was a ripsnorter of a strike from 30 yards and, 16 years on, I haven’t seen many better.
Bart-Williams’ tap-in and the ruthless Freedman arrow threatened to puncture my spirit just 45 minutes into my Villa career. During the interval, I had the opportunity of waving the white flag and beating a hasty retreat into footballing obscurity. It sure would have spared me subsequent years of heartache. Somewhat unfortunately, I opted to sit tight and watch the second period unfold. Julian Joachim reduced arrears before the hour mark and followed this up five minutes later with an identically scruffy goal, the ball ricocheting off a hapless defender to allow the forward to apologetically poke home. Forest huffed and puffed for the remainder of the game without further success meaning that when the referee checked his watch and blew for full-time, I punched the air in celebration. ASTON VILLA HAD DRAWN. It was an almighty achievement! (Forest would eventually finish bottom of the 1998/99 table with a whopping minus 34 goal difference, but what was a young lad to understand of these statistics?)
A solitary point was all it had taken to form a life-long affiliation with Aston Villa, or Aston Nil-Niller as I affectionately rename the club during barren spells in front of goal. Whilst friends would tear around the streets in Gerrard 8 and Rooney 10 shirts, I’d outsprint them all in the unmistakable Agbonlahor 11 jersey. Pundits would pour praise over the classy Thierry Henry and the quick-thinking Ole Gunnar Solskjaer for minutes on end, when all I wanted was a 10 second mention of Juan Pablo Angel’s close range header against Leicester. Incidentally, I’m still waiting …
Over the last fifteen seasons, Villa fans (I use the plural because, contrary to popular opinion, there are some of us out there) have seen the Joey Gudjonsson, the bad and the ugly. For every Freddie Bouma, there’s been a Jlloyd Samuel, for every James Milner, a Yacouba Sylla. For every stunning 2-1 comeback at Norwich, there’s been an order restoring 8-0 drubbing to Chelsea. For every 16th placed finish, there’s never been cup silverware … Although Villa is the fifth most decorated club in history, their last trophy, discounting the Intertoto cup, was secured back in the 1995-96 campaign, a league cup triumph over Leeds United. You have to turn the clock back another thirty-eight years to discover Villa’s last FA Cup success, whilst six of the club’s seven league honours pre-date the First World War. Astonishing.
Tomorrow’s clash against Arsenal represents a chance to set the record straight, for Benteke to batter Koscielny in the air and for Gabby to uncharacteristically keep his cool before Ospina. Of course, the Gunners are electric on the break; the agile Alexis Sanchez and the blisteringly pacey Walcott will destroy Vlaar and Baker should the Villa defenders get pulled out of position. Ashley Westwood will have to keep his wits about him in order to deprive the unpredictable Mesut Ozil of time and space, and if Bacuna and N’Zogbia occupy Villa’s full-back positions as they did against Burnley last time out, it could be a cricket score. However, believe in the magic of the cup and hope springs eternal!
Supporting AVFC was never going to be a walk in the park and rarely one down Wembley Way. Only this week has somebody assured me that my soul shall ascend straight to heaven for backing the “zombie-club” through thick and thin. I sincerely doubt that He above will use this same rationale, but I sure hope that tomorrow’s final judgment works in my favour.
SPAIN 0-2 CHILE
World Champions Spain were knocked off their pedestal of international dominance in Rio de Janeiro last night, as they crashed out of Brazil 2014 at the group phase.
Having seen the Netherlands march on to six points before kick-off, the Spanish knew that given their own appalling goal difference, victory was of paramount importance against the South Americans.
After the nature of Spain’s defeat against the Dutch, it seemed likely that Del Bosque would alter his starting XI for the Chile match. He opted for two changes as long-serving Barcelona players, Xavi Hernandez and Gerard Pique, made way for the towering presence of Javi Martinez and speed demon Pedro. Eyebrows were raised with respect to Iker Casillas retaining his place in goal after a shambolic showing in the opening game, while Diego Costa could count himself a little fortunate to get the nod ahead of either Cesc Fabregas or Fernando Torres.
If Spain came into the match as a wounded animal, they ended it as a rawhide. They were stripped out of their skins by Chilean hunters who hustled and harried their opponents for the duration of the game. The front three of Arturo Vidal, Eduardo Vargas and Alexis Sanchez epitomised Chile’s work ethic as the attacking players regularly tracked back as well as chasing down lost causes in offensive areas.
Pressed for time and space, Spain became uncharacteristically ill-disciplined with their passing and were duly punished when Xabi Alonso squandered possession in the 19th minute. Sanchez needed no second invitation as he hared down the right flank before passing inside to Aránguiz. The next part of the move was majestic as the midfielder had the vision to square the ball to Vargas. He in turn had the presence of mind to take Casillas out of the game with one touch and stab home on the stretch.
The Spanish were rattled but did temporarily improve. Still, Alonso couldn’t atone for his blunder when he harmlessly fired over a half volley in the 23rd minute after useful hold-up play from Costa.
The Chelsea bound forward was the next culprit before the half hour as he fluffed his lines from ten yards out. The chance arose when David Silva surprisingly got above his man to flick the ball into Costa’s path, but the fitness shy hitman was caught on his heels and could only prod a shot into the side netting.
The grimaces worn by España supporters developed into full blown looks of panic when it went from bad to worse for their nation in the 43rd minute. Any keeper learning his trade understands that you must parry or punch the ball away from the danger zone. However, this message appeared to have eluded the veteran between the Spanish sticks when dealing with a Sanchez free-kick. What should have been a regulation stop became another calamitous error from the experienced Real Madrid player. Aránguiz was grateful for Casillas’ generously punched offering when he received possession to the right of the penalty spot. Although he struggled to work the ball from under his feet, the midfielder could still produce a splendidly swerving toe poked finish into the top right corner.
The Spanish left the field for half time in a daze, but the world still expected a response from Del Bosque’s men after the interval, even if only to disprove Gary Linekar’s assertion that the Spaniards “looked less like evolving than dissolving”.
No magical metamorphosis was forthcoming though, because even when the 2010 Champions carved out good opportunities, the finishing touch deserted them. This was evident in the 49th minute when Costa broke the Chilean line of defence but couldn’t gather the ball cleanly and afforded Isla the time to make a goal saving intervention.
Sergio Busquets isn’t renowned for his goal scoring prowess, and he criminally passed up the opportunity to halve the deficit at the back post moments later. However unintentionally, Costa’s overhead kick arrived at the feet of an unmarked Busquets with 53 minutes on the clock. The holding midfielder stuck out a flailing left leg and somehow shanked his finish wide of the post from five yards.
As the reigning champions threw more men forward, it seemed inevitable that Chile would have chances to extend their lead on the break. After a well-crafted move, the tireless Isla couldn’t quite put the icing on the cake. The defender managed to latch onto the scuffed drive from his opposite full-back, but blazed the ball over the crossbar.
Chances for the Spanish to force their way back into the contest were kept at a premium which is testament to Chile’s organisation. Gary Medel was at the heart of their bank of five defenders, and “the bulldog” repeatedly slammed the door shut on the opposition.
With time ticking down, Spain were forced to try their luck from range. First Santi Cazorla’s guided effort was palmed around the post with consummate ease by the eccentric Claudio Bravo. The Chilean keeper then pulled off a stop for the cameras to deny Andres Iniesta from 25 yards, before maintaining his clean sheet with another decent save from Cazorla’s free kick with 88 gone.
With Spain silenced, the race for World Cup honours has been thrown wide open. Chile will be desperate to continue their good form against the Dutch in their last group game and so avoid what seems a likely last 16 encounter against host country, Brazil. They’ll have to do so without the crocked Aránguiz, who is suspected of tweaking a medial ligament, but nevertheless have an unrivalled team spirit that makes them hard not to fancy.
Casillas 4, Azpilicueta 6, Martinez 5, Ramos 5, Alba 4.5, Alonso 3.5, Busquets 4.5, Pedro 4.5, Silva 5, Iniesta 5, Costa 4.5
Subs used: Koke 5, Torres 5.5, Cazorla 5.5
Bravo 7, Isla 7, Silva 7, Medel 8, Mena 6.5, Jara 6, Diaz 7, Aránguiz 7.5, Vidal 7, Sanchez 7.5, Vargas 7
Subs used: Gutierrez 6, Valdivia and Carmona (insufficient time to earn rating)
Man of the Match: Medel
Many anticipated that Spain would beat the Netherlands, some predicted that a draw was the most likely result, while a handful of daring punters fancied the Dutch to defy the odds by claiming a narrow victory. However, nobody could have anticipated the 5-1 humiliation that the Spanish ultimately succumbed to. Del Bosque’s team cannot even console themselves with the knowledge that the result flattered their opponents. In truth, it could have been 6, 7, or possibly 8 …
Journalists have been searching for reasons behind Spain’s surprise capitulation. Iker Casillas obviously had a night to forget, while Diego Costa didn’t put his head to best use. Speaking of Costa, since he has been introduced as the spearhead of attack, the World champions are beginning to play a more direct style. The forward is renowned for timing runs to perfection before finishing with aplomb. To have a player of such pedigree hardly sounds like a recipe for disaster, but Costa’s inclusion has caused the Spanish to change tact. Given his aerial threat and sudden bursts of acceleration, they now have an out ball. However, being tempted to find the striker quickly, also increases the likelihood of possession being turned over. Spain may still have had the lion’s share of the ball against the Dutch, but afforded their opponents more possession than is usually the case. The equation is simple: the more of the ball you have, the less you have to defend, and the fewer goals you concede. The likes of Cesar Azpilicueta and Jordi Alba are excellent marauding full-backs, but like centre-halves Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique who are accomplished on the ball, these players struggle to shirk their doubters because they are partial to the defensive lapse. A great concern will be how comfortably Arjen Robben surged away from the Spanish rear-guard for the 5th Dutch goal, particularly given the searing pace that the Chileans also possess.
Chile will be eager to capitalise on any chance that the Spanish are still nursing the emotional wounds sustained during Friday night’s mauling. While Spanish supporters were lamentable, the Chilean equivalent were jubilant as their nation set the early pace in group B with a 3-1 win over Australia. Most consider Alexis Sanchez to be the principle threat with his close ball control and mazy runs. Sanchez netted in the opening game and will be looking to add to that tally when he lines up against Barcelona teammates in Rio de Janeiro. Another stand out performer in Chile’s opening encounter was Jorge Valdívia. Aside from his well taken side-footed curling finish, the thirty year old’s technical ability was apparent from the way that he dictated play. Although the creative midfielder has a dubious reputation off the field, he is certainly allowing his football to do the talking on the pitch. The South Americans are no soft touch, particularly when the likes of Cardiff City’s Gary Medel are busy launching themselves into a tenacious tackle or two. When you pair being well drilled at the back and with the quality of being slick in attacking areas, you’re always going to have a reasonable team on your hands.
Verdict: Spain will be desperate to revive their World Cup dream and prove that their implosion on Friday 13th was caused by superstition transpiring against them. Having shipped 5 in that game, they may revert to a less expansive style and guard against the dangerous Chilean counter-attack. This is a special South American side though, and I expect honours to be even at the final whistle.
Prediction: Spain 2-2 Chile