It was in this same fixture in May that Aston Villa beat Hull City to secure their Premier League status with two games to spare. That was very much a case of limping over the line but there is growing reason to believe that Paul Lambert’s side can aim higher this season after victory today secured their best start after three games – two wins and a draw – since the 2006-07 season.
It was a victory defined by the speed and slickness of Villa’s attacking football in the first period when Gabriel Agbonlahor and Andi Weimann struck to inflict Hull’s first defeat of the league campaign.
To say that Villa Park is overflowing with optimism would be overstating it – the 28,336 attendance was a legacy of two years of disappointing fare under Lambert – and they were helped by a poor first-half Hull performance, described as “pathetic” by Steve Bruce, the visiting manager. Yet this first home win of the season was another step in the right direction after a positive summer at Villa Park.
Owner Randy Lerner, unable to find a buyer, has loosened the purse strings and Lambert can call on more experience in his starting XI as a result. It is an increasingly settled team, too; Villa were unchanged for the third successive league game – a first under Lambert – and they hit the ground running. Inside 90 seconds, Fabian Delph nearly had a goal to celebrate his England call-up with a goal as he shot against the angle of the post and crossbar. With Delph driving Villa forward from midfield and Agbonlahor’s pace tormenting Hull’s defence, it was no surprise when the home team scored after 14 minutes.
After Philippe Senderos beat Nikica Jelavic to an Andrew Robertson clearance, Charles N’Zogbia fed the loose ball to Weimann, whose touch set up Agbonlahor to turn and fire low past Allan McGregor.
The second goal, like the first, followed Hull’s inability to get the ball away. Michael Dawson, making his debut after joining from Tottenham, played a loose ball out of defence that Delph pounced on. He fed Agbonlahor who played in Richardson to lay the ball across to Weimann and the Austrian’s precise finish beat McGregor and the defender on the line.
The Holte End asked Lambert for a wave and they might have been celebrating more goals as McGregor saved from Agbonlahor before Ashley Westwood struck the post with a free-kick. “The way we played was excellent,” said Lambert. “You get those games sometimes when the movement and passing are so sharp. Gabby, especially in the first half, was unplayable.”
Bruce, by contrast, was furious with his team’s feeble performance in a first half where Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan did not have a save to make. “It was arguably the worst I’ve seen us perform,” he said. “We gifted them goals, we made mistake after mistake, we didn’t get above a jog so how do you expect to win a Premier League game?”
In this sense, their Europa League elimination on away goals against Lokeren on Thursday may prove a blessing. Although Bruce had only started with four of the players who had begun against the Belgians, one of that number, captain Curtis Davies, was “a shadow of himself” according to his manager. Davies was taken off at half-time as Bruce switched from a back three to back four. “We were lifeless, which is not like us. The second half we were like we should be.”
With 16 minutes remaining, Nikica Jelavic brought them back into the contest, getting his head to substitute Robbie Brady’s free-kick and directing the ball past Guzan via a deflection off Aly Cissokho. Guzan then clawed a curling Jake Livermore shot away from the top corner as Hull sought an equaliser.
Tensions grew as three Hull players in quick succession were booked for fouls on young Villa winger Jack Grealish, and Villa finished with 10 men after Ron Vlaar limped off with an injury. Still, they held out in a denouement marked by misses from Darren Bent and Sone Aluko at either end.
Villa had the points, though whether either club ends up with Tom Cleverley, the Manchester United midfielder, appeared unlikely today evening, despite both having had £8m bids accepted. “I don’t think it’s going to happen,” said Bruce, while Villa sources suggested that the player’s excessive salary demands had made a deal unlikely. Bruce, though, should at least have fresh firepower arriving after confirming the receipt of a work permit for Uruguay striker Abel Hernandez, as part of an expected club-record £10m transfer from Palermo.