Aston Villa hold on for win and close in on top six as Leeds, for once, struggle in front of goal

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Arindam Rej
·20 min read
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El Ghazi makes it 1-0 to Villa  - GETTY IMAGES
El Ghazi makes it 1-0 to Villa - GETTY IMAGES
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Anwar El Ghazi struck early against his former manager Marcelo Bielsa to help Aston Villa prove that they can win in the Premier League without Jack Grealish.

Winger El Ghazi had seen the shouts of Bielsa while the pair were together at Lille in 2017 but this time the Argentine coach was barking at Leeds’ players.

The Netherlands-capped player lost body fat under Bielsa’s training regime - and this success was even more symbolic for the player because he was controversially sent off on his last visit to Elland Road for an elbow on Patrick Bamford that was later overturned.

Villa manager Dean Smith had insisted before this game that they were not a one-man team, with Grealish out injured, and that was vindicated as his side stayed among the clubs in the European qualification race. El Ghazi, taking up similar positions on the field to those Grealish might have occupied, was a key factor in that.

Leeds had plenty of possession but could not find enough penetration or the right deliveries in the final third, with their play lacking the necessary pace and punch. Credit had to go to Villa for that, notably their central defensive pairing of stand-in captain Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa, and left-back Matt Targett. England manager Gareth Southgate must have had food for thought as he watched on.

Smith said: “Very few teams will restrict Leeds’ chances like that. It was an all-round performance. Jack [Grealish] has been at a super-high level this year and we want him back as soon as possible. Anwar knows how to play against a Marcelo Bielsa team because he played for one. I knew he was ready for this game.”

Smith made bold calls by leaving Ross Barkley out of the starting lineup and picking 19-year-old Jacob Ramsey. Bielsa’s surprise on the team-sheet was putting Jack Harrison on the bench initially and drafting Helder Costa in, while he had to cope without unfit Kalvin Phillips.

Leeds began energetically with Bamford showing some nifty footwork before crossing towards dangerous Raphinha, who could not connect - but that turned out to be a false start.

Smith instructed his men to be on the front foot from the beginning - and got the fast start that he was looking for.

Luke Ayling then had a handball shout against him, when he appeared to accidentally connect following El Ghazi’s corner.

Leeds’ vulnerability from set-pieces then surfaced again when they fell behind from an uncleared corner as early as the fifth minute. Ollie Watkins eventually delivered from open play for El Ghazi, who slipped but steadied himself then struck from the edge of the six-yard box. He was played just onside by Leeds captain Liam Cooper.

Leeds had more of the ball in the rest of the first half without finding much cutting edge, with Tyler Roberts having a 10-yard strike palmed away by Emiliano Martinez. Lively El Ghazi was taking more shots on goal for Villa, with the closest he came before the break being an effort tipped over by Illan Meslier.

Villa made the opening stages of the second half even more frustrating for Leeds, sitting back and soaking up their pressure without being broken, and that set the tone - with neither team having a shot on target after the break.

Raphinha looked the likeliest to make something happen for Leeds but the door was shut on most of his team-mates. The Brazilian miscued a header in the closing stages, with Bielsa was left looking agitated by the end, as his instructions echoed around Elland Road.

“We played a game where we did not deserve to lose,” said Bielsa, whose men had won back-to-back home games without conceding before this match.

“The key is to win games successively. I would say Aston Villa defended very well but I would prefer to evaluate the way we attacked. What I think is that we lacked imagination and precision in the final pass.”

07:24 PM

FULL-TIME: Leeds 0-1 Villa

No Jack Grealish, no problem for Villa.

Leeds were unable to seriously test Martinez all night and while Villa also didn't test Meslier in the Leeds goal much, this match was decided by the hosts' inability to create much - a rarity.

07:22 PM

93 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Corner for Leeds and Meslier is up from goal - he decides to say hi to his opposite number Martinez by parking himself right under the nose of the Villa man.

Martinez wins the duel, coming for the ball and taking it well.

07:17 PM

90 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

The bad news for Leeds fans is that we're into injury time...

The good news for Leeds fans is that there are to be five added minutes...

07:17 PM

88 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

What. A. Chance...

Harrison dinks in a brilliant ball to the back post and Raphinha heads wide of the near post - anything on target would have asked Martinez to make a decent save. That was Leeds' best chance of the match.

07:16 PM

88 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

The goalscorer (and possible matchwinner) El Ghazi trots off for Trézéguet.

07:14 PM

86 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Leeds are playing with a bit more urgency now - possibly too little too late - Raphinha fires in a low cross which Martinez collects with ease.

07:13 PM

85 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Bamford has struggled to get in this game - Mings has been brilliant.

As I type that the Leeds striker gets across Konsa and does enough to win a corner.

Raphinha's corner doesn't beat the first man...

07:09 PM

81 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Brilliant from Nakamba - Leeds have men forward, searching for the equaliser but the Villa midfielder snuffs out the danger and wins a free-kick inside his own box. He's been good tonight.

07:06 PM

77 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Harrison gets forward but is easily bundled off the ball.

For Villa Sanson comes on for Ramsey - fresh legs and more experience to see out the game perhaps..?

07:03 PM

75 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Villa are committing very few players in attack at the moment - the midfield's primary role now, it seems, is to protect the backline.

07:00 PM

73 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Raphinha has been largely anonymous this half - he tries a bit of trickery on by the touchline and falls flat on his bum...one for all you Sunday morning footballers (when you are allowed out to play again) there...

06:58 PM

71 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Fewer than 20 minutes left - surely Leeds will get on the scoresheet?

06:56 PM

69 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Villa break at pace, El Ghazi has the ball on the left, he cuts inside, completely ignores Watkins who is free in the box, and shoots high and wide. He looks at the pitch in disgust, textbook blame-shifting there from the Villa man...

06:54 PM

68 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Leeds have had 65 per cent possession this half - time for them to make that count...

06:53 PM

66 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Free-kick for Villa close the the right-hand side byline - El Ghazi floats it in and Mings attacks it and heads just wide.

06:51 PM

62 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

This half is a bit hum drum compared to the first 45 minutes. Leeds are struggling to find their rhythm and that suits Villa just fine.

Harrison, who's been impressive for most of the season, is on for Costa - expect more width from the hosts.

06:49 PM

59 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Yellow cards for Roberts and Targett - the Leeds man takes a swipe at Targett after the Villa player fouled the midfielder. Targett falls to the ground dramatically and you get the feeling both will be embarrassed when they watch the replay of that this evening.

06:46 PM

56 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Leeds are asking questions of the Villa defence and so far the visitors are answering them with aplomb. You get the feeling Leeds need a bounce of the ball, or a deflection to go their way in order to get a clear shot in on goal.

The free-flowing Bielsa side we've all come to love this season they are (currently) not...

06:42 PM

54 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Yet more huff and puff from Leeds - Villa are currently happy to sit back with Leeds enjoying most of the possession, and it's a tactic that is, for now, working with the hosts struggling to create a clearcut chance.

06:40 PM

51 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Mings is angry that Leeds are awarded a corner - and it's not hard to see why, the replay shows it came off Costa.

He could have saved his energy, though, as Leeds make nothing of the set-piece.

The hosts make a change as Alioski comes on for Struijk.

06:37 PM

48 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Ayling gets forward and fires in a cross which Villa head clear. That sort of sums up the match for Leeds so far - they've got in decent (not great) positions but have nothing (not even a shot) to show for it - so far, that is...

06:34 PM

46 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

To borrow and rework (apols Man Utd fans...) a famous phrase from Clive Tyldesley: "Leeds must score, they always score..." But going on the first 45 minutes it hard to see how they are the free-scoring outfit we know them to be.

06:32 PM

45 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Back under way at Elland Road, can Leeds come back? If they are to get on the scoresheet they need to get wide more...

06:18 PM

HALF-TIME: Leeds 0-1 Villa

That was an entertaining first 45 minutes - Villa are, probably, just worth their advantage. Leeds have seen plenty of the ball but have struggled to create many clearcut chances.

06:15 PM

43 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Watkins goes in hard on Llorente who acts like he's been shot. The Villa man isn't having any of it and tries to pick him up, Llorente then, suddenly, appears to be OK, and takes exception to Watkins' attention.

Handbags...and very poor form from Llorente.

06:11 PM

40 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

A Raphinha inswinging free-kick poses questions for the Villa defence, it comes off a head of a Villa man (I think) and Martinez comfortably saves.

06:10 PM

37 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Raphinha - yep, him again - attacks from the left, the Villa defence stand off him and he wins a corner. From the set piece Costa fires a shot from outside the box (one from the training ground, that) that's blocked for another corner.

From the second set-piece Villa counter attack, Watkins ultimately runs in on goal but his shot is deflected into the arms of Meslier.

06:06 PM

34 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Raphinha gets in a great cross into the six-yard box but Bamford delays his run and cannot get on the end of it. Leeds looking better at the moment - they're seeing more of the ball and asking questions of the Villa backline.

06:04 PM

32 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Ayling is forward and tries to chip Martinez from outside the box - it's cute but also wide.

06:00 PM

29 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

We have a collector's item - a very heavy (as in obese) touch from Raphinha.

The Brazilian drives into the box getting the ball from Klich but his first touch goes straight out for a goal kick - it can clearly happen to anyone...

05:58 PM

26 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Ayling gets forward and puts the ball across the box, but no Leeds attackers can get on the end of it. A minute later Raphinha shows some fine close control in the box but cannot get a shot on goal.

Better from the hosts.

05:56 PM

Awesome Ollie

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05:55 PM

23 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

El Ghazi links up well with Watkins on the edge of the ares before firing in a low shot which goes wide. He had more time than he realised and could have taken another touch before shooting.

Good, lively start by Villa.

05:52 PM

21 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Raphinha makes a great run having killed the ball with his first touch, he runs at the defence before crossing and the Villa backline do well to clear the danger. That's what the Brazilian can do and he's a great sight to see him in full flow.

05:49 PM

18 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Lovely lay-off by Klich - who makes some lovely, clever runs off the ball - sets up Dallas for a shot which goes just wide from outside the area.

05:48 PM

16 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

El Ghazi (again!) tries his luck , this time with his right boot, from outside the box. Villa are having the better of this match so far. Leeds struggling to get on the ball.

05:46 PM

El Ghazi's opener

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05:44 PM

12 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

This is an open game - no real shock there. The Leeds defending for the goal was poor (that's being polite) but they always provide a threat at the other end of the pitch.

El Ghazi is clearly fancying his chances and he cuts in from the right and shoots from just outside the box - Meslier tips over. Mings heads over from the corner.

05:42 PM

9 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

Great save from Martinez from a Roberts shot as Leeds illustrate how good they are to watch with some great movement and interchange play.

05:38 PM

7 mins: Leeds 0-1 Villa

That was a good finish by El -Ghazi whose first touch set him up to slot home with his left foot.

05:35 PM

GOOOOOAAAAALLL!!! Leeds 0-1 Villa

El-Ghazi for Villa!

Watkins repeats what Bamford has just done - namely lose his footing while taking a shot and inadvertently setting up a team-mate. The striker's shot is turned in by El Ghazi, who is just onside, with calm efficiency, side-footing it past Meslier.

05:33 PM

3 mins: Leeds 0-0 Villa

An early corner for Villa clears everyone at the near post and hits Ayling on the hand - rightly it's not a penalty as the full-back knew absolutely nothing about it.

05:32 PM

2 mins: Leeds 0-0 Villa

Bamford picks up the ball in the inside right position, comes inside and tries to curl it into the far corner. BUT his standing foot gives way and the shot is a weak one, but one that is nearly turned in by Raphinha at the far post, the Brazilian just cannot reach the ball.

Already the poor nature of the relaid pitch is apparent.

05:30 PM

1 min: Leeds 0-0 Villa

For those in black and white Leeds are in white and Villa in black,

We're under way at Elland Road...

05:28 PM

The teams are out on the pitch...

...and we're all but ready to go!

05:28 PM

Remarkable Raphinha

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05:26 PM

Without Jackie, where does Villa's creativity come from?

With Grealish Villa's win percentage is 42, without it's just 17...

So Jacob Ramsey has come into central midfield where he'll play alongside John McGinn and Marvelous Nakamba. Smith will also be looking at Anwar El Ghazi and Bertrand Traore to provide insipiration and chances from the flanks.

05:14 PM

Dean Smith speaks...

On leaving out Barkley and Luiz…

“I just want to get more energy in the middle of the pitch - wanted to freshen it up for us.”

On getting off to a good start…

“It’s important - they’re a very good team, they have their own way of playing and you have to combat that.”

On missing Jack Grealish…

“We’re not a one-man team. We have good players who’ve excelled in the Premier League this year.”

On the bobbly pitch…

“We have to handle it, it’s the same for both teams.”

05:06 PM

The rise of Raphinha

As I've already banged on about there being little doubt Villa will miss Jack Grealish, which team wouldn't?

In Raphinha Leeds have their own magician. He's found his feet in the Premier League and is getting better every game. Here's a great read on the Brazilian by our very own Sam Dean...

After you've read that, watch this and salivate...

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04:55 PM

For Leeds...

...there's just the one change from the side that beat Southampton 3-0 - Costa is in for Harrison.

Phillips, one of their key men, is still not available. A good omen for Leeds fans is that he didn't play in the 3-0 win over Villa back in October.

04:53 PM

I present to you the Aston Villa starting line-up

ASTON VILLA XI to face Leeds: Martínez, El Mohamady, Konsa, Mings, Targett, Nakamba, McGinn, Traoré, Ramsey, El Ghazi, Watkins; Subs: Heaton, Taylor, Douglas Luiz, Trézéguet, Barkley, Engels, Sanson, Davis, Hayden

04:51 PM

Here be Leeds

LEEDS XI to face Aston Villa: Meslier, Llorente, Struijk, Cooper, Klich, Roberts, Dallas, Ayling, Hélder Costa, Raphinha, Bamford; Subs: Alioski, Casilla, Hernández, Harrison, Davis, Gelhardt, Cresswell, Jenkins, Huggins

04:45 PM

Unfortunately for Patrick Bamford football fans have long memories

Bamford has told Aston Villa fans to "let go" of his "stupid dive" that came when the sides met two years ago, writes PA.

Villa are back at Elland Road on Saturday for the first time since April 2019, an eventful match which came in the middle of a heated promotion battle involving the two sides.

Mateusz Klich caused controversy when he played on after Jonathan Kodjia had gone down on the halfway line, scoring to put Leeds in front.

That sparked a fracas between the two teams during which Anwar El Ghazi was sent off following a clash with Bamford, though the striker was later given a two-match ban for deceiving the match officials with a dive.

Leeds boss Marcelo Bielsa responded by allowing Villa to score an unchallenged equaliser - earning a FIFA Fair Play Award - as the match finished 1-1, a result which ended United's hopes of automatic promotion.

Both teams ended up in the play-offs with Villa earning promotion, but that does not mean their fans have forgotten the day.

"It seems like over the last couple of years we have become rivals with Villa, I don't know why," Bamford said on the Official Leeds United Podcast. "Maybe it's that whole thing I did with that stupid dive and we had to give them a goal and that kicked it off. That was one game though, surely you let go of that? I still get sent gifs and memes of me falling on the floor from that game and I'm like, 'Come on, let it go, I'm so sorry'."

04:39 PM

Leeds have lit up the Premier League this season but...

...they haven't chalked up three wins in a row, yet.

Victory today will see them win three in a row in the top flight for the first time since 2001...

Robbie Keane and Alan Smith during Leeds' run of wins in 2001 - PA
Robbie Keane and Alan Smith during Leeds' run of wins in 2001 - PA

04:32 PM

Ok, so let's talk about Ross

Without Grealish Villa need a good game from Ross Barkley today.

He started his loan spell from Chelsea in fine form - the sort of form that reminded everyone why he was was thought of as the future of England's midfield. Since suffering injury in the autumn, however, he has struggled and failed to make the same impact on matches.

Here's Matt Law on Barkley's fading hopes of making the England squad for this summer's European Championships.

Ross Barkley 
Ross Barkley

04:20 PM

How much will Villa miss Jack Grealish?

It’s beyond obvious to state that Jack Grealish is very important to Aston Villa. It also seems beyond obvious to add that the midfielder is one of the best players in the world at the moment - a creative force able to find the defence-splitting pass or take on and beat any number of opponents at will, a player able to bend matches to his will and immense talent (some might scoff at that last bit, but I am not sure why…).

Today we will find out just how important he is to Dean Smith’s side. The 25-year-old will again be missing having injured himself in training last week. And going on the side’s 2-1 defeat to Leicester last time out the signs aren’t great for any match Villa go into without their talisman. The side’s attacking players were seemingly lost without Grealish to galvanise them and offered little threat as Leicester cantered to victory.

This evening, Smith will look to the likes of John McGinn and Ross Barkley to make up for the absence of their star man. It won’t be easy - such has been the level he has been playing at that very few players could replace Grealish’s on-pitch stardust - but if Villa cannot match Leeds United’s usual attacking intent and movement (bar Manchester City, the best in the league) then it’s hard to see them getting much out of this match.

Jack Grealish is missing for Villa today  - PA
Jack Grealish is missing for Villa today - PA

That may seem a bit harsh, especially considering Leeds’ ability to blow hot and cold (they haven’t won back-to-back matches since the turn of the year, and can follow up 6-2 hammerings with 5-2 victories) but they were awesome when they beat Villa 3-0 in October and in Raphinha have their own talisman able to conjure up magic in the final third.

The Brazilian has found his feet in the Premier League and will be looking to wreak havoc for the Villa backline. If Villa’s attackers cannot do the same to Leeds’ defence two things will become clear: it will be Leeds’ match to lose and Grealish is more important to Villa than even huge fans like me have given him credit for.

Stay here for all the team news, pre-match analysis and action…