Shropshire Star

Analysis: Derby provides themes of West Brom and Aston Villa seasons

Just when Albion appeared destined for a victory to fuel hopes of achieving the greatest escape, they served up a reminder as to why it won’t happen.


After holding on to a 2-1 lead through most of the second half as Villa piled more and more pressure on their goal, the Baggies were within touching distance of a morale-boosting result.

Even in a season likely to end in relegation, there is immense satisfaction to be had from giving your oldest rivals a bloody nose.

Then a moment of hesitation, a breakdown in communication between Sam Johnstone and Kyle Bartley allowed Keinan Davis to prod home his first Premier League goal and in the blink of an eye a derby win the visitors had worked so hard to achieve was gone.

The goal was the 64th Albion have conceded this season and those frailties at the back, far less frequent these days but never totally eradicated, are the biggest reason they will be making an instant return to the Championship.

Should Brighton beat Leeds on Saturday, defeat to beat Wolves in next week’s Black Country Derby could see the Baggies as good as down.

Even so, the finish was cruel, doubly so when taking into account the identity of the two players at the heart of the late error. After a Tyrone Mings own goal early in the second period had put Albion ahead, Bartley and Johnstone had done more than most to preserve the advantage, the former putting his body on the line when required, the latter saving from Ahmed Elmohamady and Ollie Watkins.

There was still time, even after Davis’ goal, for Johnstone to earn partial redemption, saving John McGinn’s low drive to ensure Villa didn’t snatch all of the points.

The one Dean Smith’s team did earn was probably deserved considering the quality of the second half chances they created. Then again, they could perhaps have had few complaints in defeat, such was the careless manner they frittered away the early advantage given to them by Anwar El Ghazi’s ninth-minute penalty.

The normally excellent Ezri Konsa had a night to forget. Adjudged to have fouled Ainsley Maitland-Niles for the penalty from which Matheus Pereira brought Albion level, it was his slip which then allowed Mbaye Diagne to race through and put the visitors ahead within two minutes of the second half beginning.

For so long it looked like being the winner. If there was a positive for Allardyce to take despite the late heartache, it was the character shown by his players, first in wrestling their way in front and then the manner in which they defended the lead.

Beaten so convincingly at Leicester just 72 hours previously, you feared for the Baggies when they went behind so quickly here but there was no shortage of fight. In Pereira, they had the best player on the pitch. The Brazilian struck the bar with a first-half free-kick and brought a smart save from Emiliano Martinez in the second but it was his willingness to track back and help defensively which epitomised Albion's spirit.

Considering the ease with which the Baggies were brushed aside in the reverse fixture at The Hawthorns in December - Allardyce’s first match in charge - this was in many ways an indicator of the considerable progress since. The trouble is the improvement has come too late. Albion might be going down swinging but going down they almost certainly are.

For Villa, who have now won only twice in their last 11 matches, the target for the remaining six matches is to achieve a top-10 finish.

While clearly a long way from perfect, their performance was not without its positives, particularly in attack where Smith’s men showed more fluidity than they have for several weeks.

Though Jack Grealish’s absence - this was the 10th straight match he has missed with a shin injury - has undoubtedly been the biggest factor in Villa going off the boil, the befuddling form of Ross Barkley also hasn’t helped.

At a time when Dean Smith really needed the 27-year-old to step up and plug the creative gap left by Grealish, he has largely gone missing.

This showing, in what was his first start for more than two months, saw some improvement. There had already been a couple of neat touches, including one deft pass out to Matt Targett to create a crossing position, before he earned the spot-kick from which Villa took the lead in the ninth minute. Reacting quickest after El Ghazi had seen a shot blocked, Barkley was upended by the hasty Semi Ajayi.

El Ghazi made no mistake from the spot, sending Johnstone the wrong way for his seventh Premier League goal of the season and first since the 1-0 win over Leeds in late February.

The Dutch winger will perhaps be a little mournful that Albion appear destined to be in the Championship next season. Matches against the Baggies appear to bring the best out of him and he has now scored five times in six appearances against them.

After struggling for form of late, the early goal clearly boosted his confidence. A few minutes later he came close to setting up Barkley for a good chance after a neat link-up with Watkins, before later in the half bringing a sharp save from Johnstone with a powerful drive from outside the box.

By then, however, parity had been restored. Another theme of recent weeks has been Villa’s failure to hold a lead. There was a time not so long ago when Smith’s team could lay claim to being the division’s finest frontrunners. But this was the fourth time in succession - including the last three matches straight - they had been pegged back after scoring first.

A defence which has been impressive through much of the season suddenly looks a little creaky. Konsa’s evening almost got worse when he sent a corner crashing off his own post. Soon after Martinez tipped a curling Pereira effort over the bar. They proved crucial moments as after hitting the post following a scramble in the Albion box, Davis stayed alert to grasp his chance and earn Villa a share of the spoils.

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