Villa tough it out to win ugly at Norwich

Posted by Kevin Hughes

Libor Kozak Aston Villa celeb NorwichPA PhotosLibor Kozak came off the bench to break the deadlock at Carrow Road.

It was gritty, determined and disciplined, a performance and 1-0 victory built on graft rather than craft. It was the kind of performance rarely seen from this Villa side, the kind of performance the team needs to dig out more often if they're to achieve genuine progress this season.

Villa needed a positive reaction following last weekend's defeat to Newcastle, and produced several. From manager Paul Lambert, two changes to the starting line-up, one enforced, one quite a surprise, as well as a tactical reshuffle that enabled Villa to stifle and squeeze, and close the game out. From goalkeeper Brad Guzan, on the end of criticism for perhaps the first time in his Villa career recently, who saved a fifth-minute penalty, produced an extraordinary second-half save and generally gave a masterclass of handling. From some of the more unheralded members of this Villa squad, who stepped up to deliver strong performances: Leandro Bacuna, Ciaran Clark, Karim El Ahmadi. And finally, from the newest player at the club, Libor Kozak, who scored the decisive goal just two minutes after replacing Christian Benteke.

It wasn't a typical Villa display at Carrow Road. That did not seem likely from the start, the way Lambert had set Villa up, in a more conventional 4-4-2 system. Bacuna replaced Matt Lowton at right-back, a bit of a shock with Lowton not even among the substitutes, and Aleksandar Tonev came into the side for his first league start with Ashley Westwood injured in training. Tonev was dreadful -- more of him later -- but the switch benefited El Ahmadi, who was able to occupy a central spot alongside Fabian Delph and excelled. Andreas Weimann was deployed on the left of the midfield four, and gave his brightest performance of the season. Gabriel Agbonlahor partnered Benteke up front.

- Benteke worries allayed
- Villa edge out Norwich

Lambert's decisions, by and large, paid off. Bacuna kept Nathan Redmond mostly subdued, physically strong enough to frustrate the winger and quick enough to close down any space. El Ahmadi used the ball intelligently, combining well with Delph, keeping possession and always looking for the outlet pass to launch an attack. Weimann, in his unfamiliar role, was often the architect of Villa's most threatening moves, particularly in the first half. By the time Robert Snodgrass had missed his penalty, Weimann could have scored twice, testing John Ruddy in the first minute and curling a shot against the inside of the post in the second.

Benteke's injury 25 minutes in could have seriously disrupted Villa just as they were getting into the game; the Belgian slipped under pressure from Sebastian Bassong, limped off, limped back on, sat down in obvious discomfort and eventually surrendered to substitution. But Villa introduced Kozak and settled back into their rhythm. Within two minutes, the Czech striker had his first goal for the club. Weimann completely opened up the Norwich defence with a side-footed pass, Kozak really should have beaten Ruddy first time, but when Agbonlahor seized the loose ball and teed it up a second time, the striker passed into the net from the six yard line.

When Agbonlahor joined Benteke among the injured with 30 minutes to go, the introduction of Niclas Helenius gave the Villa attack a very unfamiliar look. The Dane was competent enough, but as a pair, he and Kozak were rather static, undoubtedly ball-to-feet types. With hindsight, Lambert would have been better advised to bring Joe Bennett on at left-midfield, so helping out Antonio Luna, who had a difficult afternoon against Robert Snodgrass, and releasing Weimann into a central striking role. Helenius, and Kozak, saw little of the ball as the game ticked towards its conclusion.

Norwich weren't unlucky, as such. They had the game's best player in Snodgrass but, other than Gary Hooper's almost accidental header which Guzan reacted fantastically well to, in tipping it over the bar, the hosts created few clear cut chances. Rather, it was a case of Villa players throwing bodies in front of the ball and straining to get any kind of deflection on a cross or a corner. Clark was superb throughout, Bacuna too, and Luna, who was hobbling on more than one occasion, came through in the end. Behind Villa's defence, Guzan claimed any ball within arm's length and beyond.

It wasn't a game of spectacular individual performances, but of several steady and committed ones. The exception was Tonev, who was poor throughout. His early touches were heavy and loose, and the Bulgarian seemed to regress as the game went on, shooting at will, and wildly and wastefully too. Composure was virtually non-existent. All in all, it was a miserable experience for the winger, mercifully ended by his 76th minute substitution. Marc Albrighton, recently linked with a loan move to Derby and back in the squad as an unused substitute for this one, may have been encouraged: if Lambert sees a place for a right winger in his team, he could see Albrighton as a better option than Tonev. On this evidence, at least.

Not pretty, far from perfect, but there was a certain beauty in seeing 'Norwich 0....' on the scoreboard on the whistle. A novelty for Villa, it was a first clean sheet in the Premier League in 2013. Sometimes, tough and ugly is good. Sometimes, tough and ugly can win football matches.


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