After an intense encounter at the Hawthorns, Aston Villa have booked their ticket in the Championship play-off final with a penalty shoot-out win over West Brom.
The match was on a knife-edge in the first half but Craig Dawson eased the home fan’s nerves with a towering header to open the scoring in the 29th minute.
And the second half followed a similar pattern of play, but in the closing stages Chris Brunt saw red following a clumsy late challenge on John McGinn, and the match headed for extra-time.
After an additional 30 minutes failed to separate the sides, the match finished 2-2 on aggregate, but Aston Villa prevailed 4-3 in the resulting penalty shoot-out to reach Wembley for a second successive year.
It was another play-off semi-final classic, but who were the winners and losers from this latest instalment of the West Midlands Derby?
Winner: Aston Villa
Villa are now one step away from Premier League action; a return to the fabled land is just 90 minutes away for a club who have drifted for three years since their exit from the top-flight in 2016.
Dean Smith’s side were made to work for their ticket to the hallowed Wembley turf, and while they fell slightly below expectations this evening, the club now have a massive opportunity to rectify their defeat last year and make amends, re-establishing themselves among the land’s elite.
Gaining promotion will also be pivotal in retaining the signature of Jack Grealish, with the highly-coveted playmaker a wanted man in the Premier League; there is a growing sense of apprehension among the Villa faithful that the 23-year-old will be on his way if Villa fail to make it out of the Championship.
Well, the club are now just one win away from reaching the promised land and having their prized asset – as well as boyhood fan – captaining Villa onto the pitch at some of English football’s most iconic stadiums.
Loser: Chris Brunt
The seasoned midfielder would have counted himself very lucky to have remained on the pitch for as long as he did after his first half stamp on John McGinn’s arm went unpunished by referee Chris Kavanagh, and later his meaty challenge, again on McGinn, resulted in only a yellow.
But it was his midfield nemesis once again who cropped up and lulled the 34-year-old into another foul which ultimately resulted in his eventual dismissal. During the closing stages a nimble McGinn touch took the ball beyond Brunt’s reach, but the Northern Irishman lunged in regardless, and after some thought, Kavanagh produced a second yellow.
There may be some debate about whether his second foul was worthy of a straight dismissal – those sort of full-on lunges have certainly seen plenty of red cards brandished in the past – but there will be no arguments about his third.
With a match as delicately poised as the one this evening, a footballer of Brunt’s experience should have known to keep his head down and play his game, especially considering how heated these West Midland derbies can get – and he’s played in plenty. His blunder may very well have cost his side in the shoot-out as well, as his lethal left-foot is so often reliable from deadball scenarios.
Any chance the Magpies will have of retaining the services of on-loan lethal marksman, Salomon Rondon, this summer would certainly have hinged on whether West Brom gained promotion back to the Premier League.
Well, with the West Midlands club now eliminated from the Championship play-offs, that could now help foster a permanent move for the Venezuelan to Tyneside, with his price significantly dropping as a result.
Rondon has been sensational this season, a talisman for Newcastle, and this will be big news for Mike Ashley, who may very well use the acquisition of the old-school forward as a bargaining chip to keep Rafa Benitez at St. James’ Park. The Newcastle owner is not a man known to flex his financial muscles in market and wave his cash, so a reduced fee for Rondon will be big news for the Toon Army.
On the flip side of the coin, Gayle – who joined West Brom as part of the Rondon loan deal – has equally impressed this term with a commendable 24-goal haul, but his first-leg red card may very well have cost the Baggies a place at Wembley.
Loser: Andre Green
With Albert Adomah rested, this was a huge chance for Green to stake a claim in the starting XI and make a name for himself among the Villa faithful, but the match largely bypassed the 20-year-old.
The incisive winger looked tentative, often running down blind alleys and not producing that moment of magic in the final third; in contrast, Adomah was destructive upon his introduction, causing the Baggies a myriad of problems down the flank.
Green is highly-regarded at Villa Park and manager Smith has afforded his budding starlet plenty of first-team opportunities this term, but there were hopes the academy product would have really pushed on by now and cemented a starting berth in the first team.
However, with just a 64 % pass completion rate this evening, as well as just nine accurate passes and 22 touches, this was not the night Green came of age.
Winner: West Brom set-piece tactics
During the first leg Aston Villa opted to execute most of their corners with a short pass rather than whipping the ball into the box of uncertainty, and with good reason, West Brom are extremely certain, extremely assured from set-pieces, such is the towering presence in their starting XI.
But it’s not just defensively where the Baggies dominated the air and thrived, as James Shan’s side often wreaked havoc in the opposition box, causing bedlam in the Villa area with lofted balls and dangerous deliveries; and it paid dividends as Dawson broke the deadlock with a bullet header during the first half.
With the tiebreaker heavily poised, Mason Holgate wiped down the ball in typical Rory Delap fashion, and launched a long throw into the Villa box. Dawson rose highest and deftly guided the ball past Jed Steer to level the tie.
This was always likely to be West Brom’s best route to goal with Gayle suspended, and they duly took advantage of their aerial prowess; with three physically-imposing centre-backs on the pitch, one was always bound to find the back of the net.