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  • Writer's pictureBy Kaz Mochlinski

High press and goal blitz reignites that Champions League trail for impressive Spurs

Aston Villa (0) 0

Tottenham Hotspur (0) 4 Maddison 50, Johnson 53, Son 90+1, Werner 90+4

Spurs scintillatingly reignited their Champions League qualification hopes with a spectacular second-half performance to overwhelm Aston Villa, their main rivals for a top four finish.

Four goals after the break at Villa Park from James Maddison, Brennan Johnson, Son Heung-min and Timo Werner were the result of a near-perfect display from Ange Postecoglou’s side.

A red card for Aston Villa’s captain, John McGinn, midway through the second half left the home side down to 10 men, but by then Spurs had already established an almost unassailable advantage.

Aston Villa remain in fourth place, but the win means Spurs are now just two points behind with a game in hand. Although that is away at Chelsea, it puts a Champions League spot very much back within reach.

“Everyone was billing this as a do-or-die for us. I assume we’re not dead yet,” Postecoglou declared after the match between the teams in fourth and fifth in the Premier League, which was potentially pivotal for both sides.

“We were outstanding in all facets. It was a big game with plenty of significance, so for us to perform like that was a big credit to everyone.”

With Pedro Porro fit to return after his recent muscle injury, Postecoglou had his first-choice defence available again. They responded with a first clean sheet for the club in the Premier League in 2024.

However, as much as Postecoglou’s infamous high-line defence was unbreachable this Sunday lunchtime, it was the energy-sapping high press of his forwards which provided the basis for the victory.

Led as always by Son, supported by Johnson and Dejan Kulusevski, they repeatedly pinned back their opponents, who were not helped by Unai Emery’s surprise switch for this match to a 5-3-2 formation.

It led to a first-half stalemate, with Villa seemingly happy to play for a goalless draw after their Thursday exertions in Amsterdam away to Ajax in the first leg of their last 16 tie in the Europa League.

Both teams preferred to play on the counter-attack or from fast transitions, and it was Spurs who made the most of those situations at Villa Park, scoring with their first four attempts on target.

The goals came in two batches, one at the start and one at the end of the second half, both times within less than four minutes of each other. All four were from first-time strikes by the forward line.

Ange post-match at Villa Park: Images by Kaz Mochlinski

Maddison and Johnson’s goals, in the 50th and 53rd minutes respectively, were crucial. With Villa a man down, Son and Werner completed the rout in the 91st and 94th minutes.

While Werner scored for the second successive weekend - just six minutes after coming on as a substitute - it was Son’s sixth goal in his last four matches at Villa Park.

Moreover, Son’s strike this time was the 159th goal in total of his Tottenham Hotspur career, significantly taking him up to joint-fifth on the club’s all-time list of goalscorers, level with Cliff Jones.

Only Harry Kane, Jimmy Greaves, Bobby Smith and Martin Chivers are now left ahead of Spurs’ enormously-popular Korean captain in the list, underlining his growing status as a club legend.

Son has contributed greatly to Spurs’ continuing club-record run of scoring in 39 consecutive league games, now extending to over a year since a 1-0 defeat at Wolves last March.

Just as importantly, at Villa Park Spurs secured their first league clean sheet for three months, having not managed to avoid conceding since a 2-0 win at Nottingham Forest in mid-December.

That was also their previous away victory, followed subsequently by a defeat and two drawn games in the Premier League before this weekend. With the spring run-in to the end of the season now getting underway, they could not have timed it better.

For Aston Villa it is their home form which is of concern, with four losses in their last five matches at Villa Park, interrupted only by an unconvincing 4-2 win against Nottingham Forest.

Having compiled a club-record run of 15 successive home league successes last year, Villa have not really recovered from it ending just before Christmas with a disappointing draw against Sheffield United.

On that occasion a victory would have taken them to the top of the Premier League. Now, after losing so heavily to Spurs, they are in danger of missing out on a first appearance in the Champions League since their defence of the European Cup in 1982-83.

This was Emery’s worst-ever home defeat as a manager, equalling a 5-1 loss when in charge of Spartak Moscow against Dinamo Moscow in the Russian Premier League in 2012.

His fear will be that Spurs’ second 4-0 win at Villa Park in three seasons will have a deeply damaging effect on Aston Villa for the remainder of the current campaign, with the home sections of the stadium emptying long before the final whistle.

McGinn beforehand had called Tottenham’s visit “the most important game in the club’s recent history” from the Villa perspective. His sending-off contributed to possession stats of 30-70% in favour of the away side.

Postecoglou once more showed his coaching insight by identifying Villa’s vulnerability of developing exhaustion, which he sought to exploit by dialling-up the high energy and physicality of his familiar Angeball approach.

He reiterated it to his players at half-time, and, by the end, it had been so effective that Villa despaired at the 10 minutes of stoppage time added on, and the away fans were singing “Are you West Ham in disguise?”

It was Aston Villa’s first defeat after a Thursday night match in the Europa League this season. But it also occurred without a single serious effort on target from the in-form Ollie Watkins and co.

Then again, in a slightly strange and subdued game considering the exciting attacking expectations in advance, Emiliano Martínez at the other end also didn’t have a save to make until the 92nd minute.

However, by then he had seen Spurs score past him repeatedly. And Aston Villa’s mood was perfectly reflected by the torrential rain and prevailing grey gloom in which the match was played.

Most of the attention lately may have been on the Premier League’s enthralling three-horse race for the title. But, on a weekend when Crufts was being staged in Birmingham, Spurs proved themselves the top dogs among the rest.

And with that may well come a coveted Champions League return.

Villa: (5-3-2) Martinez - Cash, Konsa (Diego Carlos 85), Lenglet (Zaniolo 58), Torres, Digne (Moreno 58) - McGinn, Douglas Luiz, Tielemans (Diaby 58) - Bailey (Iroegbunam 69), Watkins

Spurs: (4-2-3-1) Vicario - Porro, Romero, van de Ven (Dragusin 49), Udogie - Bissouma, Sarr (Bentancur 70) - Kulusevski, Maddison (Werner 87), Johnson (Hojberg 88) - Son

Attendance: 42,310


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