Here we are. Forty-six games played, 46 games out the window. There’s only two that count, now. Villa’s aspirations, kindled by Dr. Tony Xia’s ambitions, will either be within reach or cruelly denied by the time we crawl into bed Tuesday night. And how we feel tonight may well be all we need to know.

The regular season isn’t entirely meaningless, but in many ways it is. Play-off games are different. Everything is on the line in what boils down to a two-game season against one side. But of course, the preceding 46 games are what’s got us here. They’ve told us what there is to know about the squad, players, and manager. Who we are, what we do best. What we’re not so good at. We either feel good about ourselves or we don’t.

We can look at the table, and there’s not a lot to separate us from Boro—which is about what you’d expect from number four playing number five. We finished off seven points better by virtue of winning two more and drawing three fewer. Our goals against (42) is slightly better than theirs (45). Our goals for, also slightly better, at 72 versus 67.

And perhaps fittingly, both sides were tipped to have perhaps done a bit better this season. Yet here we both sit. And also perhaps fittingly, it’s a very familiar face in the opposite dugout, one that looks a lot like it belongs to Tony Pulis. That can be shorthand for whatever you like, but we know how he likes to set up his stall, and you’ll be holding your breath in set-piece situations.

We’ll also welcome back fan favorites like Disco Stew, Adama Traore, and Rudy Gestede.

We had one game each on either side of Gary Monk’s short tenure, and even though Pulls has got them in the play-offs, we can probably expect these two to play out not much differently: 0-0 at Villa Park in September, 1-0 to Villa at the Riverside.

Attention likely will focus on Jack Grealish and Adama Traore, but Stewart Downing, Albert Adomah, and Robert Snodgrass will all have a lot to do with things, even if it is just canceling each other out. Britt Assombalonga (14 goals) and Patrick Bamford (10) will be expected to provide the goals for Boro, but Daniel Ayala has also chipped in with seven, and Traore five. It’s Traore’s 10 assists, and Downing’s seven that give you some idea how this is likely to play out.

Compare that with 15 goals from Albert, nine from Conor Hourihane, eight from Lewis Grabban, and seven from Robert Snodgrass.

Without being particularly brilliant about things, it seems like the task on the day will be neutralizing Traore while not forgetting about Downing. With Taylor out, we’ll see Hutton on the left side and I’m sure we would’ve done so even if Taylor were fit. On the right, I’m assuming Bruce will go with Elmohamady’s experience. Then it’s really up to Albert and Snodgrass to put in a shift with and without the ball.

For me, if he’s fit, Bjarnason has to be in the midfield rather than Whelan if for no other reason than Traore’s pace. He’s got to be bracketed as much as possible, and Bjarnason’s got a good enough motor along with the requisite tenacity to help offset Traore’s dynamism. Hutton’s fairly quick, too, but will get turned. The trick is that Troare will, by and large, be coming through at John Terry if he’s getting away clean. That will see Terry yielding a lot of space in front of him. One might suppose Jedinak would be an upgrade in terms of pace and mobility, but there’s not way Terry’s not playing.

The other consideration is size, and whether Bruce elects to go with Jedinak in DM. And do we end up in a 4-2-3-1 in that case? I would think Jedi is going to need help in the middle of the park if he does start. In that scenario, does Hourihane make way for Bjarnason? Or is Bjarnason making way for Jedinak? Does Josh Onomah have a part to play?

And then, of course, we have the two-leg strategy to take into account. Is Bruce happy with a 0-0 and it all to play for at Villa Park? I’m guessing he’d be very happy to set up that way and see if he can’t come away with a 1-0 win. The math’s not hard. Everyone would feel better being up on the goal tally at the end of the day, along with whatever psychological edge that provides. At the same time, if you keep the home side stalemated, you won’t feel bad about that. Anything’s better than coming out Tuesday night with a deficit to make up.

So, there are some tactics and strategy involved, and getting the set-up right is going to be vital. We’re told the staff have been preparing.

At the end of the day, though, it really is going to come down to who wants it more and who’s more cowed by the occasion. The pressure has been put on Villa, and given the way the season’s played out, you can understand. The trick for Bruce is getting the players loose and ready to embrace the challenge. Villa have to match Boro’s intensity and avoid conceding early. And ideally avoid conceding at all. This is where Bruce’s caution may well be a plus. Villa can do 0-0s and 1-0s. So can Boro.

Whatever happens here shortly, it’s almost certainly going to be nerve-wracking. Villa’s fate is squarely in their own hands. They simply have to be up for it. We’ll soon see whether they are.

Over to you.

Comments 68

  1. Otherwise, no surprises:

    Elmo Chester, Terry, Hutton
    Adomah, Grealish, Hourihane, Snodgrass

    Bunn, Samba, Whelan, Bjarnason, Onomah, Hogan, Kodjia

  2. So far so good could be two, not expecting anything more than a repeat this half, so far the Villa walking football 11 good for their lead 🙂

  3. Think I’m now up to 10 blood pressure tabs instead of one and a whole bottle of wine instead of none.

    Keep it going Villa and we’re on our way ……

    Yours in medical crisis,

  4. As day in the life of Paul Whiting:
    Wakes up after a poor night’s sleep
    Gets out of bed (on the wrong side. . . again)
    Goes for a shower . . . bloody water’s cold

    . . . to be continued

  5. Great win but far, far more difficult than it should have been. Can’t stand Bruce’s tactics…he’s just said “we got too deep in the second half”…who’s fault is that…tw@t

  6. That’ll do, have to wonder why kodjia is prefererred he doesn’t look fit, can’t say I’m looking forward to another 180 mins of that.

  7. No, bringing on Kodjia was not a great move…might have been with an eye toward keeping players fresh, but dropping Grabban wide left offered less than Adomah as far as pace and just getting up the flank.

  8. We were almost playing with 10 when Kodjia came on.

    Wasn’t keen about dropping deep, either. That said, Traore was handled pretty well. Fabio almost changed things round for Boro. I think Bruce figured if there were just going to keep pumping crosses in, then we weren’t in bad shape. If the players were dropping off against instructions, well…

    Could do with a few less corners though on Tuesday.

  9. r0bb0,

    We did defend well, and the initial set-up was the right one. Was also smart to switch Hutton over to follow Traore.

    Like I said up top, wanted Bjarnason in to help bracket Adama from the middle, but we did well enough without him. Traore always looked dangerous, but was trying to do too much, and we made sure he had plenty to do.

  10. Paul Whiting – why do you bother? Unbelievable comments. Sad that you are so defeatist …

    Hutton superb. Snodgrass made so many important contributions especially defensively, he really worked his thingys off…….. well done.
    Team display totally.
    Kodger was lazy when he should have been running himself stupid.

    All to play for and as Bruce said, it’s only half time. Certainly not all over yet. But we are certainly within sight of Wembley now ……… Yeeeeeesssssssssssss!!

    Yours still on wine and tabs but must save some forTuesday …

  11. Pity about the U23s, too many long matches in a short time, just so Brighton can win their cup game – outrageous!
    Hope elmo is not out for the rest of the playoffs.
    Terry looked right bashed up, well more than normal.
    Downing looked completely p*ssed off – great, may it continue!
    Jack did well as did snoddy, but sitting back won’t work because if they score we’re stuck in retreat mode, can’t seem to change the mind set.

    Think I’ll join you with a bottle of wine.

    every time you think the jedi won’t work out, he scores a goal.
    Looks like Bree for Tuesday, rather that than Taylor.

  12. Cheers, Trinity.

    Indeed, 1-0 Villa at the half. Let’s hope Villa start on the front foot in the second. Really glad that one’s at home.

  13. IanG…

    Bit of magic about me. I say don’t do it, Bruce does it, and often it turns out. Never mind being wrong if we come away with the result.

    But Jedi actually getting the goal was a bit beyond belief. They must’ve passed word to him in the dressing room that I was arguing against his inclusion.

  14. Who’d want to be Villa’s centre forward eh? looks like Bree will be playing on Tues and JT got a knock. Can’t say Boro offered an awful lot to undo us though but we coped well enough.

  15. PW – “Polished your claret and blue glasses have you?”

    Shouldnt we all have claret and blue glasses as we are all Villa fans …………………… arent we?
    Surely tonight is cause for some sort of celebration – we’ve got to half time and are winning …. good team display, chosen by the manager ……. and supported by the fans ….


  16. JC- You’d have wonder where the goal would of come from if Jedinak hadn’t and how we would of played? Derby are the only team with an in form striker out of the 4. These games are nearly always Cagey affairs so no surprise on tictacs just hope the collective legs can last three games like that.

  17. Advantage Villa. Pulis rants on about how the refs MUST protect Traore yet his team are given carte blanche to keep kicking the best man on the pitch by some distance.

    I’m sure the sold out Villa support on Tues will make the difference. Thought Boro covered so much more ground than us over the 90 mins. Hopefully that won’t be the case next game.

    We did end up far too deep. Such tactics make the fans nervous which in turn transmits to the team. It looked like Elmo pulled his hamstring. If so, he’s out for the rest of our season.

    Great corner from Jack and great header from Jedi. Shame Snoddy’s curler was tipped onto the post.

  18. Well, we have achieved the first part with greater success than most of us dared imagine, and Steve Bruce is on an almighty (well deserved) high..!!

    I enjoyed the whole game, especially Mile’s golden goal header, which set us on a good path.

    We may well see James Bree replacing El Mohamady, Jedi replacing Terry, and Bjarnason slotting in the Jedi role. Other than that, I cannot see any other changes at the moment.

    Great result..!! Great future..!! Really looking forward to Tuesday now, and perhaps Wembley…!!!

  19. Yeah, it was tight, Mark. Course, could’ve had the second but for the save. But beyond that, and the header we put over, not much going on.

    By the same token, given that we got ahead 15 minutes in, don’t know how that affected things.

    I’m hoping that by packing back we did a little less running.

  20. I wonder if we find ourselves in roughly the same position Tuesday if Bruce will put Hogan on instead of Kodjia. He’ll get more running out of Hogan, and Kodjia just doesn’t look like he’s got the legs at the moment to run onto things and take it past people. Hogan’s not the moment-of-magic threat Kodjia can be, but right now, it looks like Kodjia has looked a little better with Grabban up top with him. And I’m hoping we don’t see the need to put two strikers on.

  21. John

    Said the same when i saw jedi play. But watchd the game with a boro fan and said we have pulis. Long throws etc. Jedi in to head everthing.

    Im not saying im a fan of trusting the dfnce so much and seeing us see out a won nil….i was nervous to say the least….like badly. But boro mate said why are you worried you got your goal and have locked it down. Going to win.

    Suprb win and on to tues. vp under the lights with 42k cant wait

  22. Andrew,

    Yeah, I figured if Jedi was playing (not sure if I took that bit out up above) would likely be for height, and given how little of the game they spent trying to go down the middle, the Villa staff scouted it right and it worked well.

    At the same time, to MK’s point, I do think it limits chances. Bjarnason will carry it forward from deep, get to the edge of the box, etc.

    Hutton did do a very good job, and there was good discipline getting two on Adama. Still was dangerous, but that was a win for Villa.

    And while nerve-wracking, 1-0s are what you expect from big games, and Bruce knows that. I’d said last week or the week before that it may well be that the football we’ve been bemoaning will be the football that could ultimately see us through. My heart might not take sitting back on a 1-0 lead for the majority of the (hopefully) next 180 minutes, but it’s better than watching an opponent sitting back with a lead.

  23. Andrew – I was thinking we needed 2 Huttons – the original and a clone. Good move to switch him to right as Traore went there.
    Comments in the Guardian – Hutton plays his heart out when contract talks loom (I don’t agree – he knows the outcome if we go up); also comment about typical Brummies to which I responded that not all Villa supporters are Brummies.
    Away support fantastic

    I was a bit concerned about the lack of close marking on Traore but then again he could skin most defends easily – it is the final ball that slays him.
    Same again Villa and then it’s one more game.

  24. Thoughts moving onto Tues. Looks like our FB pairing will be Hutton and Bree. Hutton to follow Traore again.

    I’d start the viking in place of Hourihane (to give him a rest). Up front might be worth playing Hogan to run their defence about as Ayala may not make the game. Neither Grabban or Codger looked a threat yesterday. Snoddy will need monitoring, he looked out on his feet towards the end.

    We do need to get a goal and should be aiming to win the game to avoid any slip ups. Three days is a quick turn around and I’m hoping the effort already expended by Boro tires them out. COYVB.

  25. I dont mind the championship but judt looking at the prem table, theres no better time to go up and do well.

    14 teams on a minus gd. 34 points keeps you up. 44 points gets you tenth. The brilliant burnley who i think we would base ourselves on if still with bruce, (nice and tight and nick the odd goal) get european footy and went 11 games without a win and still didnt budge from 7th! In other words from 6th down is s**te and we would have a more than good chance to stay up.

  26. Great win wasn’t it. Shame we didn’t get the 2nd from Snodgrass effort.

    Have to say the second half performance in terms of attacking was a disgrace to be honest. That’s why I really don’t like bruce. We have good attacking players. Why not go 442 once in a while and go 2 up top ?

    Anyway, can’t wait for Tuesday under the flood lights. Just hope we attack more

    Can you imagine Bruce managing us in the Prem though ? I can’t. It won’t be pretty

  27. Andrew- Sorry mate can’t see us doing a Burnley way to old, the prem might be not all that outside the top 6 (always been that way) but the players are quick and skilful and the managers generally better tacticians. We are top dogs in the champs and we struggle so in the prem there will have to be big changes. I like the older players showing the younger ones how to be a professional but just a shame he couldn’t of brought in some worth keeping for the prem, they are out there. Take the oldies out and we look threadbare, no spine to speak of and the youth no experience. Its gonna take some doing, not convinced Bruce has that.

    How did your fantasy league go? I ended up 2nd in my brothers works league, 1 point behind 1st and if I’d moved one sub a place to the left I’d have won by 3, gutted but happy we got some winnings 🙂

    Ended up with 2129 350,589 out of 5,910,135 and 126,988 in England so got some work to do next season but now I know the ins and outs should improve I hope.

    Thought Bruces comments come at a strange time, keep that stuff till its all finished or you risk upsetting players. Nobody wants to be told they are unprofessional.

  28. Mark

    I think we will be ok…we will sign at least 6 players apparently too. But lets cross that bridge when we come to it!

    The fantasy league has been immense. im 665th out of abouth half a million!

    got the cup final to go though. won my mates mini league but amazingly level on points with a chap at work! its going to the cup final to decide! I was behind him but Robertson saved me yesterday with a clean sheet, assist and goal!

  29. think the players are either gone or been put on the straight and narrow.

    for me jacks form is down to the likes of terry, elmo, whelen. like bruce says he has proper pros to look up too.

    gabby was his idol and the one he looked up to before that!! probable why he was out all the time.

    has grown into a man this season

  30. Andrew- yesterday was a massive day for me, I was 22 points behind 1st ended up with 87 and something like 12+ bonus points had Salah, Robertson, Vardy, Fabianski, Zaha. Nearly captained Zaha, changed back to Salah 2 mins before deadline 🙂

    Yeah theres no doubt they have helped him along with strengthening and his scare but unfortunately it also prevents others from taking on responsibility and growing like Hourihane, sometimes adversity brings the best out and makes them a terry, they are not born that way generally.

  31. Andrew- Been planning for weeks trying to gain on the lad in 1st, at one point he was over a 100 ahead. the double game week is where it went tits up, ended up with 56 and 15 points left on the bench that was weird week, non of the usual suspects scored. The man city lads let me down this week Sterling and Jesus, at least Jesus scored but the bloke in 1st had him as well. Nothing worse than when the manager makes mass changes 🙂

    Really enjoyed playing, better than watching us at times 🙂

  32. its a decent game. makes all matches interesting.

    I only really enjoy or have played the telegraph one though. not keen on making people captains etc. Like to keep it simple!

  33. Andrew- Yes easy to slip up and some players like Salah tend to score lots of points but never get bonus points as they provide moments of magic but are not making lots of passes, tackles etc, Its a complicated system but you soon get used to it. Big learning curve to start off with so will know better next season hopefully. Its certainly rekindled my interest in The prem, I hope I can pick Grealish next season and Ohare. Tried a few different strategies and you really have to study teams form and habits.

    Bruce playing things down in his presser as he should hope we can put it to bed quickly.

  34. well half way there, controlled much of the game without expending too much energy as Boro chased for a goal, granted we conceded space as we moved back towards our 18 yard line.

    However there was a lot of huff n puff from Boro with little end product and we have home advantage Tuesday aka tomorrow. Confident but not overly so as one goal is never enough.

    Expecting a very different Fulham tonight, Derby will do well to replicate the first game’s result, Fulham need to get rid of the hangover of end of season defeat and realise they’ve another chance. We’ve been preparing for play-offs since October 🙂

    Enjoy the game lads, I’ll check back in after

  35. Finely balanced isn’t the word.
    Chances on both sides, 0-0.
    Hope it stays like that because I think Derby is there for the taking.

  36. JG
    Half time mate, I’m not psychic.
    Full time now 2-1 to Fulham
    Haven’t they got an extra day to recover?
    That’s happened to us & especially the U23s this season.
    Just as well I’ve not got so many teeth to bite my nails.

  37. I thought Derby rode their luck and eventually, as sure as night follows day it ran out. These one off cup finals have to have an attacking approach with some risk otherwise it goes tits up. Only after the second goal did Rowett change it and then Derby looked more likely. Too little too late. Top marks to Jokanovic. Spud take note, we need to attack tomorrow night.

  38. Yes,
    a very different Fulham tonight who destroyed Derby and exposed their weaknesses. Only Carson was outstanding for Derby. Could not understand why Rowett did not bring Vydra on earlier, could have made a big difference.

    If we do win through tomorrow night, and we should, not looking forward to facing Fulham at Wembley, but Bruce is the expert so we will keep the faith…!!!

    Up the Villa and bring it on for tomorrow night..!!!

  39. Well done the lads. I could disappear in the Amazon (Prime or otherwise) and really good commentary would stretch on and on and on.

    But, since I’m not lost in a rainforest, there’s a fresh page up for the game.

    COYVB. Let’s get it rolling tonight.

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