In a phenomenal night of football, Aston Villa beat Leicester 2-1 (3-2 on aggregate) in the Carabao Cup semi-final.
Villa took the lead early on but spent most of the game holding their hosts at bay. Leicester hit Villa with everything they had but just could’t make their dominance count. What did we learn?
1. Trezeguet’s hero moment
Trezeguet signed for Aston Villa in the summer with a reasonable amount of hype around him. The talk was that the Egyptian would bring a touch of class to the wing and help Villa thrive in the Premier League. This has not come to pass and he’s been just sort of alright.
Tonight he came off the bench with just 15 minutes left on the clock and didn’t have too much of an impact as Villa were just holding on. But then at the end, Ahmed El Mohamedy sent a devilish cross into the back-post and there was Trezeguet in the right place at the right time to clip a delicious finish low across the face of goal into the corner of the net to win it. Delirium.
The pictures at the end, with the Villa fans invading the pitch and mobbing Trezeguet to show their love, and then lifting him up onto their shoulders as he beamed from ear-to-ear, will become absolutely iconic. These are the moments that players live for, the moments that echo throughout history as men become legends.
2. Orjan Nyland is a brick wall
Tom Heaton injured, Pepe Reina injured, Aston Villa had to turn to Orjan Nyland for the second time in the Carabao Cup. Last time he was amazing and held Leicester to just one goal, and again tonight he did the same. Despite spending so much time on the bench, the Norwegian stepped up big time to repel the Foxes time and time again. No matter what Leicester threw at Nyland, they just couldn’t get by him until Kelechi Iheanacho did. And given Iheanacho had five goals in five games against Leicester and 18 goals in 28 domestic cup games for Leicester and Man City, conceding to the Nigerian is hardly a serious condemnation. Nyland was man of the match and deservedly so, and regardless of who is fit he has to start in the final now.
3. Leicester’s profligacy is beginning to show
The Foxes’ incredible rise up the table to second place and their flirtation with actually being in the title race is slowly fading away, and the main reason is they’re just not scoring as many goals as they are creating chances. In the early season, Leicester were astoundingly accurate, with a conversion rate far above a sustainable level. Those numbers were always going to even out eventually.
Coming into tonight, Leicester had won just two of their previous five games (and one of those was against lower league Brentford). Jamie Vardy hasn’t scored a goal since Christmas and had to leave the field injured at the weekend. Tonight they had more than enough shots to win the game, but just couldn’t put any of them away. If this shoddy finishing continues, expect the Foxes to slide even further down the table and perhaps open up a second top four place to genuine competition.
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4. Hector vs. Achilles
The big story coming into this game was of course the battle between no. 10’s: James Maddison and Jack Grealish. The former a more established player at the top level with a more technical style; a solid pro. Our Hector. Meanwhile the latter is a pure off-the-cuff street footballer, all improvised genius. Our Achilles.
These two did battle throughout the game. Maddison looking more refined and playing with more logic, pummelling Villa with shots on goal that were parried away by Orjan Myland. But it was Grealish who stood tall and was counted, carrying the ball into the Leicester box, holding the ball up and then finding Matt Targett with a gorgeous little flick that his full-back finished.
Maddison fit perfectly into the Leicester attack, moving into dangerous zones and linking with his team-mates to hurt Villa. Meanwhile Grealish simply was the Villa attack. They didn’t have a gameplan so much as they just gave it to their Achilles and prayed to the gods that he would deliver them to salvation. He did it once, and repeatedly looked the best bet of doing it again.
Grealish’s superiority was highlighted just after the hour mark, when he passed the ball to Mbwana Samatta. That is an accurate summary of what happened but is also such a dramatic understatement that it becomes, in effect, a mendacious statement.
So Grealish was about 35 yards from goal but he may as well have been 100, there was no angle for a pass yet the Solihull Ronaldinho found one anyway; bending spacetime like a wormhole to arc the ball perfectly through the Leicester defence right into Samatta’s path.
The striker completely whiffed on the contact, missing when it seemed easier to score and robbing us of one of the most spectacular assists of the season so far. So no miracle assist, but in the end so much attention was paid to Grealish (as he headed the ball to Ahmed El Mohamedy for a last minute pre-assist) that Leicester simply forgot to mark Trezeguet as he ghosted in at the back-post to score. Achilles wins again.
5. Villa will still believe
Now Villa move on to Wembley where they will face either the unstoppable force of Manchester City or a Manchester United side that overturned a 1-3 first-leg deficit so will be full of the kind of belief that can flatten teams before a match even starts. So, either way, they will be far from favourites to lift their first league cup since 1996.
But rule them out at your peril. With Nyland in such impassable form and Jack Grealish looking like England’s answer to Ronaldinho, there’s every chance Dean Smith and his men could spring an upset and take home the 2020 Carabao Cup.