Aston Villa vs. Leicester City hardly leapt off the page as a standout game to the casual observer scrolling the fixtures lists last night looking for some midweek sporting entertainment.
Of course, once they had remembered it was the Carabao Cup semi-final second leg, with the score poised at 1-1, it became a little more interesting. But given we’re in the part of the season where Premier League games come bi-weekly, and we’re about to hit the first knockout round of the Champions League, it still wasn’t top of most people’s must watch lists.
In the end it was a thrilling match however, and while this game is now essentially the “Who Gets To Get Battered By Man City In The Final” playoff, it meant a lot to both teams. For many players on the pitch this was the biggest stage they’ve played on in their careers, with the chance to compete for a cup just 90 minutes away.
Brendan Rodgers’ Leicester, rightly praised for 12 months now, looked the better team and were heavy favourites. But despite their superior squad they ended up on the losing side. The greatest factor in swinging the game against them wasn’t the home support, or any tactical magic from Aston Villa manager Dean Smith. It was a superb performance from Jack Grealish.
This was his chance to take his excellent Premier League form into a one-off, high pressure knockout game, and he delivered in every aspect.
A Chelsea fan doesn’t say this lightly, but Grealish played a worth of Eden Hazard’s very finest hours. The Belgian blew hot and cold at some stages, but when he was on his game there was little the opposition could do to stop him. This was the state the 24 year old Villa midfielder achieved last night.
Playing off the left wing, just like the Belgian tended to, he was everywhere. He created danger every time the ball came to him in the final third, but just as often as he produced an outlandish flick he would also play a simple delayed pass that would cause just as much trouble for the Foxes.
His awareness not just of the players around him but also of the shape of the game was impressive. The tempo of the match was decided by what he did with the ball at his feet, sometimes pushing on quickly and sometimes drawing in Leicester defenders before laying a simple pass back to his midfield.
As the game wore on and Villa came under more pressure, he didn’t fade from the game or hide higher up the pitch. He came deeper, got more involved and used his supreme confidence on the ball to help his team work their way out of trouble rather than allowing them to panic and play it long.
— Will Faulks (@willfaulks) January 28, 2020
At this stage of the game he was at his most Hazard-like, using his body brilliantly to win foul after foul to take the pressure off his teammates. Of course he doesn’t quite have the speedy low-slung scurry of the former Chelsea winger, but instead his height and strength gives him even more ability to play deeper and more centrally.
The combination of tactical intelligence, technical skill and pure desire that Grealish showed in one game was exceptional. In a season where he’s already taken a step up, he excelled in its biggest game so far, and it was hard to not imagine Europe’s top clubs taking note.
The midfielder should be celebrated as a great player for Villa, and his achievements there should by no means be seen just as CV building in the hope of joining a Champions League club. Watching as a Chelsea fan, however, it was hard not to imagine what he would bring to Frank Lampard’s incomplete XI.
That creativity and touch between the lines, that brilliant football brain, the set-pieces, shots and crosses cracked in to the box from all angles, even the confident swagger that transmits his belief in his own ability to every other member of his team and lifts them all. All of it would add so much to the squad Lampard is trying to build; and this season already would likely have been worth half a dozen precious Premier League points to the Blues in the games where they toiled toothlessly against deep-set defences.
Prising Grealish away from the club he has showed so much loyalty to won’t be easy, and it perhaps won’t even be possible. But last night’s game was the evidence that not at least giving him the chance to step up would be a failure on the part of a club desperately looking for a new star man to fill the void left by Eden Hazard’s departure.