Advantage Aston Villa after Tammy Abraham penalty downs West Brom

After a week of sensational comebacks it might not quite rank alongside Liverpool’s and Tottenham’s efforts in the Champions League but Aston Villa turned around their play-off semi-final first leg against West Bromwich Albion with two goals in four minutes to seal a 2-1 victory.

West Brom had frustrated Villa for 75 minutes, protecting Dwight Gayle’s early goal and making Villa, the form team in the Championship, look toothless. But a brilliant strike from Conor Hourihane and a Tammy Abraham penalty, both following fine work from Jack Grealish, gave Dean Smith’s side the advantage.

This was among Villa’s worst displays in the last dozen games, something Smith admitted after the final whistle. “I’m pleased we won the game, not so pleased with the performance,” he said. “We can be a lot better than that. We were nowhere near our best but found a way to win. We keep finding ways to win, and there’s plenty more in the locker.”

West Brom arrived with a plan to frustrate Villa and slow the game down as much as possible, and took the lead after a dreadful error from Glenn Whelan. The midfielder, who was described this week by Smith as undergoing a “renaissance” but who suddenly looked every day of his 35 years, let a Grealish pass slip under his studs. Gayle was through on goal and he walloped a left-footed shot into the bottom corner.

Conor Hourihane equalises for Aston Villa with a fine effort from the edge of the penalty area.
Conor Hourihane equalises for Aston Villa with a fine effort from the edge of the penalty area. Photograph: Matthew Childs/Action Images via Reuters

The opener seemed to knock Villa sideways: from that point their play was disjointed and uncertain despite having plenty of the ball, and they appeared to have little clue about how to break through West Brom’s packed defence.

The second half followed a similar pattern to the first, with West Brom defending stoutly, crammed so tightly that Villa simply could not unpick them, the task looking a little like trying to untangle a drawer full of charging cables.

Villa’s second-half substitutions, Hourihane for Whelan and Andre Green replacing Albert Adomah, initially had little effect, until a frantic spell saw them burst into life. Grealish, who had spent 75 minutes playing as if he was trying to win the game on his own, collected the ball on the right of the box, tried to make space for a shot but so drawn were the West Brom players to Villa’s talisman that Hourihane was left in a ludicrous amount of space. He thrashed a shot through the massed ranks into a corner and Villa Park exploded.

That turned out to be a mere prelude as Villa quickly cranked up the volume again minutes later, when Grealish made tracks towards goal and Kieran Gibbs chopped him down. Not even the West Brom players protested against the referee’s decision, and Abraham nervelessly stroked the penalty home.

West Brom’s task in the second leg will be made even tougher because they will be without Gayle, sent off for a pair of yellow cards in the closing stages. The first was for time wasting over a throw-in, the second after a late challenge on Villa’s goalkeeper, Jed Steer, and West Brom’s caretaker manager, Jimmy Shan, was unhappy with both decisions.

“The first one, he got booked for allegedly time-wasting for the throw-in, but it’s a new one on me that every time the ball goes dead you have to jog or sprint [to it],” Shan said. “Not once did he stand still. And the second one, for myself he’s got every right to go in. His eyes are transfixed on the ball.”

The second leg will take on a much different tone, as West Brom now have to go for the win, but so will Villa according to Smith. “The tie isn’t going to be over after 90 minutes today,” said Smith. “We’ve won a game of football, and on Tuesday we’ve got to win another game of football.”