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Wednesday, February 21, 2024

Aston Villa ‘struggle’ but title challenge grows

Aston Villa ‘struggle’ but title challenge grows

Leon Bailey opened the scoring for Aston Villa in their 3-2 victory over Burnley

If Aston Villa needed to signal that they are genuine Premier League title challengers, their victory over Burnley fulfilled that requirement.

Not that their 3-2 win over the Clarets was convincing, far from it. It was only sealed in the final minutes of regulation time through a penalty which struck the bar twice.

But it ticked the box of winning ugly, of securing three points even when well below their best. If Villa – now level on points with leaders Liverpool – are to stay in the title race, these are the wins they need.

“It was very important after our last two matches without points like we want,” Aston Villa manager Unai Emery told Match of the Day.

“We did very good work, but we struggled in some moments. I respect Burnley a lot because they are doing a lot of good work.”

An action-packed match saw the hosts lead three times, culminating in Douglas Luiz scoring a penalty after Villa academy product Aaron Ramsey – who joined Burnley in the summer – tripped Jhon Duran.

Luiz’s penalty was itself suitably chaotic – after taking an age to begin his run-up, the Brazilian’s shot hit the bar, bounced on the line and hit the bar again, before finally landing in James Trafford’s net.

It was the denouement of a game which saw Burnley denied a first-half lead by a narrow offside call, Villa take a first-half lead following a narrow offside call and the visitors reduced to 10 men after two avoidable yellow cards for Sander Berge.

If Villa do produce one of the greatest Premier League title triumphs, this will be viewed as a pivotal win – even if it wasn’t one of their most clinical.

‘Winning in the last moment, sometimes it’s important’

“The goals, VAR and the red card in the second half – they were close to getting something and we had to push until the last minute but we carried on and in the end we got the penalty,” said Emery.

“Winning in the last moment with some emotion, sometimes it is important.”

This win also caps off a truly remarkable 12 months under Emery, particularly at Villa Park.

Villa have won more home games – 17 – and earned more home points – 53 – in the Premier League in 2023 than any other side.

Douglas Luiz scores Villa's winner
Douglas Luiz’s penalty ensured Villa have rescued three home points late in matches over the Christmas period

They have now scored in their last 24 home league matches – Villa’s longest run since 33 consecutive games scored in between May 1982 and December 1983.

Only goal difference is keeping Liverpool ahead of Villa at present. If the Reds fail to beat Newcastle on New Year’s Day, Villa will be alone at the summit if they beat Everton on 14 January.

There is an awfully long way to go, but especially at home, they look ready for the fight.

“It is very difficult, we are very happy we are being competitive and at home we feel very strong with our support,” said Emery.

Villa ahead of Leicester mark

The last time Villa had it this good after 20 games of a Premier League season was when they went top of the table on 8 January 1999. This was followed by a 10-match winless run and they ultimately finished sixth.

The lessons of history, plus the unconvincing performances over the present Christmas period, should prevent anyone associated with Villa getting overexcited.

Villa could have been ending an immense 2023 with three games without a win, this match following a draw with bottom club Sheffield United and a defeat at Manchester United where they lost a two-goal lead.

But through a mix of luck, skill and sheer force, Villa continue to barge ahead of the big names around them.

They are also still ahead of where Leicester City were in their historic title triumph of 2015-16.

Leicester were also second after 20 games, but with only 40 points after being held at home to Bournemouth. Villa, thanks to that late penalty, are two points better off.

It’s not pretty, but if they keep picking up points, Villa will happily win ugly.

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