New division, same old feeling for Aston Villa.
This had been heading towards an encouraging draw for Roberto Di Matteo’s new side in South Yorkshire, in their first game out of the English top flight since 1988, yet Fernando Forestieri curtailed the hope and optimism surrounding their new dawn that had filled the air before kick-off.
The Italian’s late goal following a dreadful clearance from the debutant Villa goalkeeper, Pierluigi Gollini, secured Sheffield Wednesday an opening victory and a continuation of their buoyant run at the end of last season, when they came within touching distance of the Premier League.
The beaten Championship play-off finalists of last season had the edge on a balmy afternoon at Hillsborough but this looked for all the world like a goalless draw with five minutes left to play. Villa had grown into the game and even looked like nicking it in the second half but – for a side that won just three matches last season – that winning habit remains evasive.
These are still very early stages in the life of the Di Matteo-Tony Xia reign and, despite the result, it was a far better display by Villa than some of the abject showings last season. It was perhaps to be expected that they lacked complete cohesion, although the £12m signing Ross McCormack did grow in influence as the match progressed, squandering a chance when through on goal with 15 minutes left to play under pressure from Tom Lees.
“It’s going to take time to work with this team but the second half was very good,” said Di Matteo. “The players gave everything today, we ran and we fought. It’s a shame we gave it away rather than them earning it.
“We’ve seen some good, positive signs. There’s a good group together that wants to do well. They’ve [Wednesday] been together a year and caused us some problems. But I thought we defended well as a team, we created some good opportunities and put them under pressure, we controlled the second half.” On Gollini’s error, he said: “There is no need to apologise, we win together and lose together. It wasn’t a great ball back to him.”
Villa brought 4,500 supporters, those keen to forget the recent past and enjoy an away trip without an expectation of certain failure. They were in strong voice, with hope renewed after their annus horribilis last season, but their side struggled to control the tempo in a first half where they played predominantly on the counterattack.
Wednesday, in contrast, appeared more comfortable on the ball in midfield, although neither goalkeeper was seriously tested until the second half. Steven Fletcher, making his debut for Wednesday after a summer move from Sunderland, attempted an ambitious overhead kick following excellent work down the left from the impressive Daniel Pudil, yet could not make contact.
Soon after, the forward was forced off following a nasty clash of heads with the new Aston Villa captain – also a recent acquisition – Tommy Elphick.
Following a lengthy break in play because of the collision, Wednesday’s momentum was checked and Villa crafted their best opportunity of the half, a purposeful run from Jordan Ayew who played a neat one-two with Leandro Bacuna wide right, only to head straight at Keiren Westwood.
Villa’s composure increased and a decent spell followed in the second half, with Rudy Gestede going close with a header and McCormack finding pockets of space. Ashley Westwood dragged wide in the 56th minute from the edge of the penalty area as both sides became more adventurous.
There was then a flurry of half chances. First an effort from Bacuna for Villa that deflected narrowly over the crossbar, before Westwood and McCormack both had efforts that drifted narrowly wide.
Then came the sucker-punch. Forestieri had been Wednesday’s greatest threat and he capitalised on a moment to forget for Gollini who sliced his kick high and, following a fortuitous ricochet, the forward raced through to finish coolly.
Carlos Carvalhal, the Wednesday head coach, said: “We decided to try and win the game, we put on [Atdhe] Nuhiu, we put on one more attacker. I think after some minutes we were more dangerous again. We scored because the goalkeeper made a mistake, but only because Gary Hooper put the goalkeeper under pressure. Usually in that moment, Fernando scores.
“I said before the game we were ready for the competition and trying to create a team compared to last season. Wembley was fantastic, it was not negative. It was a memorable season, we didn’t need to forget anything about the past. We are still trying to work and improve the team. I think the team are playing at another level now compared to the beginning of last season.”
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