It was a whirlwind Wednesday night under the Villa Park lights as Steven Gerrard’s valiant Aston Villa went toe-to-toe against Man City.
Villa would have been good value for the draw as well with 18-year-old Carney Chukwuemeka going agonisingly close with just 15 minutes remaining.
GERRARD PROVES HIMSELF AGAIN!
Another word for the manager here who’s completely transformed Villa in just the two-and-a-bit weeks since he walked through the door.
His message to the players at half-time did the trick last night. ‘You gave them too much respect, go and score the next goal, make it interesting and take it to the wire’ was an abbreviation of what he said with Villa gutsy and the better side in that second 45.
“In terms of what I think of my players I only appreciate and love them even more,” Gerrard beamed afterwards, “because if we can take City to the wire like that, that’s a real positive for me.”
The boss was asked about the players’ response to his methods and the Villa Park crowd uniting as one for Gerrard’s Villa once again here, to which the 41-year-old offered this humble reply: “I think when you take over a job like this off the back of someone who took them from the Championship to the Premier League, who’s one of their own, it was always going to be a tough transition. Certainly, from the supporters’ point of view.
“I respect that and understand that it’s on me to prove to the supporters that I am the right man. It’s on me to show them that I can put a team out that can be competitive, no matter who comes and that there’s hope and belief that we can move forward and have successful and good memories together.
“In terms of fans’ support and what the fans have given us over the last few weeks and what the players have given me, I can’t ask for any more. I’m really honest when I say that. I can even see areas where we can grow very quickly.”
The Gerrard-Villa love-in is looking all the more like a marriage made in heaven. What an appointment it’s been so far and, while you may think Gerrard sounded a little soppy in his thanks to the Villa faithful last night, the manager still had a bit of old-school spite to dish out to his counterpart Pep Guardiola.
“They’re trying to keep the ball in the corner flag and he’s looking at his watch all of the time,” Gerrard snarled. “That’s a positive for me when I see a world class manager doing that.”
PURSLOW GESTURE AS JACK FRONTS UP
Let’s address the elephant in the room then and look at Jack Grealish’s anticipated Villa Park return. The reaction was a mixed one with boos drowned out by applause and applause drowned out by boos once more, before deafening chants of ‘VILLA TILL I DIE’ broke out across all four corners of the famous old stadium, in a sarcastic jibe to boyhood Villan Grealish knowing he walked away just a year into his previous five-year Villa contract.
There’s no doubt whatsoever that Grealish was hurt by the hostile reception he was given, first as he walked out to sit amongst the subs and then as he warmed up before being booed by the fans that once adored him as he entered the pitch with three minutes of normal time remaining.
Grealish’s first act was to uncharacteristically pass the ball out of play after a misunderstanding with Raheem Sterling as large pockets of Villa fans jeered his every move.
The playmaker showed grace, though, in fronting up at the final whistle – and fair play to him as he sucked up the stick to clap the Holte End on his own when he simply didn’t have to. It was a touch of class from Grealish who paid his respects to the ones that applauded him on his return.
Grealish’s proud family were guests in Christian Purslow’s box last night alongside Prince William who enjoyed his first Villa Park visit of the season, with the future king watching Villa’s former prince play out the final few minutes.
WATKINS RUNS £100MILLION PAIR RAGGED
The run and the finish was a brilliantly-worked set-piece last night as Watkins rattled home his second in three games under the new boss.
“I don’t think there is a limit and that’s not me saying that because he’s now my striker,” Gerrard said of Watkins. “He’s got the lot. He’s got pace. He’s got power. He runs in behind. His hold-up play is really good. He’s aggressive. He can occupy two defenders at once.
“I think he’s really stepped forward in the two weeks I’ve seen him. He’s been up close and personal with me. I’m absolutely delighted with him. He will grow, get better and I think he’ll enjoy playing in this style and in this way.”
Watkins put in a man-of-the-match showing against Dias and Nathan Ake last night, running that £100million pairing ragged at times all on his own.
Watkins has, as Gerrard put it, “stepped forward” with Danny Ings out of the picture currently due to his ongoing hamstring problem.
And if there’s a player that epitomises Gerrard’s style, press and relentlessness it’s Watkins. You get the feeling, under the tutelage of the manager and his coaching staff, that the striker is just going to get better and better from hereon in. He looked bang at it last night and long may that continue.
DOUGLAS AND PEP MOMENT
To a quick quirk spotted during last night’s defeat now and Guardiola was quick to give Douglas Luiz some love as the players emerged for the second half.
The City boss signed Douglas for £10million from Vasco in 2017 and has previously waxed lyrical about the South American before and after previous Villa-City meetings, while declaring his annoyance at not being able to obtain a work permit for him with Villa moving to sign him two years ago for a bargain £15million.
Guardiola gave Douglas a big hug near the touchline with the pair in conversation ahead of the second half commencing.
Midfielder Douglas was, however, brilliant on his return to the starting XI, enjoying the most touches while making a number of key passes throughout as he played on the left of a midfield three.
And lastly to an issue Gerrard ironed out last night and that’s talk surrounding Chukwuemeka’s future. Last week, The Guardian reported how the teenager had rejected a new contract at Villa given he was expected to sign a lengthy new deal on his 18th birthday back in October.
That’s yet to happen but, after being trusted for a 30-minute run-out against City last night, Gerrard was quick to explain how Chukwuemeka’s long-term future is at Villa Park.
Gerrard told BirminghamLive : “Listen, this is a young kid. I don’t think we need the noise from the background. Regarding the contract situation he’s got 18 months left. He only signed a deal a year ago so he’s not even halfway through that deal yet. We just need the kid to play football, let him evolve and let him grow.
“We showed what we think of the kid tonight. We showed the belief and confidence in this level of game which is important for him.
“I think you can see the profile and the talent but it’s my job and the staff’s job to make him get better to grow and to get him a better game understanding.
“But we think this is the right place for him. If anyone else thinks it’s not then I’d like to sit in front of them and discuss that because he’s a local lad, he’s enjoying it.”
Gerrard also admitted to having a sit-down with the England under-19 star recently, adding: “He’s enjoyed the last two weeks. I spoke to him face to face and we’ve told him that if he keeps performing he’ll be very much part of the first-team setup so I don’t see a problem and I certainly don’t want a problem to brew in the background that, for me, I don’t think is there.”