The most played fixture in the top flight saw Villa draw level with Everton on the number of wins as second half goals from Cash and a brace of sorts from Leon Bailey brought the Blues unbeaten start to the season to a shuddering halt.
Saturday tea-time saw Villa Park host the first Cazoo Derby (?) of the season as unbeaten Everton travelled to the Midlands aiming to keep the pressure on at the top of the table with victory at a ground we haven’t won at since Roberto Martinez was our manager.
Villa sat in mid-table prior to kick off with four points from their four games so far but despite losing 3-0 at Chelsea last time out, many thought they gave the London side a tough game, so it wasn’t a game for Everton to take lightly.
Villa boss Dean Smith spoke on Friday about his sides progression in the Premier League noting, “When we got promoted, our remit was to stay up. Then we’ve progressed from 17th to 11th. The next step is the hardest because you have to pass established Premier League teams. Some of those teams have been top four teams in the last decade. Arsenal, Tottenham and Everton come into that category as well. We haven’t made as good a start as we would have wanted but it’s important that we take the confidence from the Chelsea game – despite the scoreline – and take it into this home game now.”
And on the prospect of facing an in-form Blues, he added, “they’ve started unbeaten this season as well, it’s certainly a challenge. I’m full of respect for Rafael Benitez. He’s an experienced coach and he understands this league at this level. Over the last couple of seasons since we’ve been back in the Premier League, we’ve got a really good record against them. Hopefully that can continue.”
For this most-played fixture in the top flight of English football, Smith selected his starting eleven: Martinez, Konsa, Tuanzebe, Mings (c), Cash, McGinn, Luiz, Ramsey, Targett, Ings and Watkins.
Travelling to the Midlands, Everton were looking to emulate the start of last season and if achieved, it would be the first time the Blues had recorded back-to-back five game unbeaten starts to a season.
Blues boss Rafael Benitez was again unable to select Dominic Calvert-Lewin to lead the attack and speaking to the press about injuries and the fitness of James Rodriguez he advised, “Still, we have to wait for some weeks. We don’t know exactly how many, but he (DCL) will not be available for two or three weeks. He (JR) is training. And these kind of weeks – when you play a game and have a day off in between – it is not easy to see [how fit he is]. We will see how he is Friday in another training session but, he is training normally with the team. We will decide tomorrow how he is doing.”
Everton again came from behind in overcoming Burnley last Monday and Benitez paid tribute to the effort put in by Richarlison in achieving the win. “I think he played really well. Maybe he didn’t have the chances but in terms of what we needed to play against two big, strong centre-backs, for him it was not easy and I was really impressed with some of the things he did. Because we didn’t play well in the first half to provide him with better service, better passes, he couldn’t be brilliant [in front of goal] – but his effort was really good. In the second half, I decided to change him. Maybe he would have been happier to try to stay on the pitch and score but, I wanted to give a chance to Rondon because he has not been playing football for four months.”
The Spaniard stressed though that the win was due to a collective effort when he said, “A strong team ethic is the key if you want to be successful. Sometimes, you can depend on one player but the reality is, if you want to win trophies and want to compete, you have to have a team. So, then, to have so many players working so hard and players on the bench when they come on the pitch and give their best, I think that is the best thing that can happen. We have some players who can take the credit for everything but, to be fair, for the defenders it was not an easy game and they did well.”
With rumours on Friday evening of players maybe out of contention – Jordan Pickford with a shoulder strain, Seamus Coleman with a hamstring issue and Richarlison with a knee problem – Blues fans everywhere were keen to see who would face Villa and in what formation the team might play, the answers came when Señor Benitez named his starting line-up with the likelihood of ever-changing formations: Begovic, Godfrey, Mina, Keane, Digne (c), Doucoure, Allan, Iwobi, Gray, Townsend and Rondon.
On a pleasant September evening, Craig Pawson was the appointed referee.
A nice early move out from the back started by Keane and involving Allan, Iwobi and Townsend saw Godfrey on the overlap cross for Rondon to force Martinez into conceding the first corner that then saw Rondon climb but, unable to direct his header down and on target. Villa won their first corner as Townsend deflected a cross from Targett behind, Begovic with an outstanding reaction save to deny Mings, Keane putting the ball away for a second Villa corner that Townsend cleared – a bright opening from both sides to the game.
The Blues settled into a back four formation and seemed happy to let Villa dominate possession through the opening quarter of an hour, and a free kick against Keane for a foul on Watkins led to a training ground move by Villa that ended with Ings seeing his speculative shot go high and wide. Everton responded with Digne playing a one two with Iwobi to cross from the left, Mings conceding the Blues second corner that Townsend sent over for Keane to head just wide of the back post.
Another Everton counter, after Ings failed to find a team mate with a pull back, saw Gray race away down the left and cross into the six yard area but just too far in front of Rondon but, another decent attack from the visitors. McGinn needed treatment for a bang in the face before being okay to carry on. Midway through the first period and the game appeared to have found a pattern of Villa pressing forward and Everton happy to soak it up and break quickly when the opportunity afforded itself.
Villa almost Made the most of a slip by Godfrey as Watkins drove forward and the ball broek for McGinn to bend a shot wide of the target. Mings with a hefty clearance broke up an Everton counter as Iwobi and Doucoure fed Gray to cut in from the right, the Villa defender hoofing the ball clear. Everton got the ball forward again and another cross from Digne saw Godfrey arrive and collide with Mings who went down heavily while Targett too needed treatment on a groin strain. Gray got away from Mings who fouled him, the referee waving play on but the moved ended up with Rondon adjudged offside as a cross from the left came in.
A long ball out from Mings saw Keane with a good block on a McGinn shot saw the ball fall to Cash who pulled his shot wide of the near post. Gray with a great chest control and overhead kick released Iwobi to scamper down the left flank and see his cross deflected behind for another Blues corner. The set piece was played too long but when Mina hooked it back in, McGinn panicked and conceded another corner that saw Gray cross for Mina, Targett getting back to deny the big Columbian.
McGinn again went down and on 39 minutes he was withdrawn for a concussion substitution to be replaced by Nakamba. The concussion change meant that should Everton need it, they could now use four substitutions.
Into the final five minutes of an entertaining half and Villa won a free kick 35 yard out for a foul on Luiz by Doucoure. Targett sent it into the edge of the six yard area and Everton cleared without too much trouble. Allan broke up a Villa attack to find Gray and he fed Townsend for a long range shot that Martinez saved comfortably. Two added minutes were signalled with Everton enjoying more possession, Allan with a super ball into the area that Townsend couldn’t quite reach. Villa countered but a cross from Cash was woeful and posed no threat to Everton and the whistle sent the teams to the dressing rooms tied at nil-nil.
Half Time: 0-0
No further changes by either side for the start of the second half that began with Ramsey winning a corner off Doucoure, Luiz again looking to find the head of Mings but, Everton clearing without too much trouble. Villa were again looking to force the pace in the early stages while the Blues, well drilled by Rafael Benitez, looked calm and composed holding the home side at bay.
Nakamba spread the ball wide for Targett to cross, Mina in the perfect place to clear comfortably. And when Villa floated another free kick looking for Mings, Mina again got there first and moments later made a diving clearing header to clear the area again. Gray found well by Townsend span away from Konsa who appeared to impeded him, referee Pawson waving away claims for a free kick. Mings then caught Townsend to get a lecture from the referee as Everton looked to make the set piece from 30 yards out count but the shot from Townsend cannoned off the Villa wall.
Gray drew another free kick for a foul by Tuanzebe, Digne sending it long to find Townsend only for his cross to be way too strong and sail out for a goal kick. As we approached the hour mark, both sides were warming up substitutes and when Iwobi found Gray and raced into the area to receive the return ball, he couldn’t find the power on the shot to trouble Martinez in the home goal.
Godfrey was unlucky to bring down Targett and Villa used the stoppage to replace Targett with summer signing Leon Bailey on 61 minutes. Everton defended the free kick well and Mings made a mess of the follow-up cross from Cash. Andre Gomes was the Blues first change a minute later replacing Salomon Rondon, a move that saw Alex Iwobi pushed further forward.
The Blues were desperately unlucky not to open the scoring as Townsend broke up a Villa attack to burst forward and send the ball right to left to pick out Gray, his curling shot beating both Martinez and the outside of the post. The lucky escape for Villa saw the home side capitalise as they broke quickly down their right and Cash got away from Digne to get to a ball from Konsa and crash a terrific shot past Begovic and into the top corner on 66 minutes, his first goal for Villa since joining from Nottingham Forest.
The goal sparked an until then restrained Villa Park into making some noise and the home side won a corner that Bailey took and it took a touch off the head of Digne to beat Begovic for two in three minutes.
Villa had wrestled the initiative from Everton with the two quick goals and Ramsey bent a shot wide as they went for the jugular. Ben Godfrey drew the first yellow card of the game for a foul on Bailey and Everton made a second change, Anthony Gordon replacing Allan on 72 minutes.
Unto the final quarter of an hour and it got worse for Everton as Leon Bailey marked his Villa debut by getting on the end of a crossfield ball from Ings to beat Begovic with a powerful blast.
Andre Gomes saw a shot charged down as he tried to get the Blues back into some kind of contention before Bailey, who’d only been on the pitch for 21 minutes, went down holding his left thigh. JonJoe Kenny and Tom Davies came on for Ben Godfrey and Alex Iwobi respectively with ten minutes to play, and Bailey left the field to be replaced by Young.
An Everton counter was halted by Cash bringing down Gordon, Digne with the free kick finding the head of Keane but, he couldn’t direct his header on target. Davis fed by Townsend saw his shot charged down by Ramsey and three added minutes were announced. Watkins found by Ramsey won a late corner for Villa that came to nothing but allowed Ings to work a few extra seconds off the clock.
A disappointing result for the injury-troubled Blues and they’ll welcome the opportunity to play again quickly when they travel to Loftus Road on Tuesday for the Carabao Cup time with Queens Park Rangers.