Well well, who would have thought it ? Who could possibly have predicted that ? Words like unreal and unbelievable scarcely explain what happened at Villa Park last night.
The Rangers players and supporters are in dreamland today, pinching themselves. Yes, it really did happen. Coming into the match the omens were not particularly good. Rangers have a poor record away from home. Villa had won 10 of their previous 12 Championship matches, including a 4-1 demolition of league leaders Wolves only three days earlier. Surely a home win, Rangers simply lambs to the slaughter.
Yet sometimes football has a funny habit of producing the unexpected and fooling us all. No-one seemed more surprised than Ian Holloway, the Rangers boss. Tactical master strokes or good fortune ? Maybe a touch of both but there was no doubt that Rangers thoroughly deserved their victory and it was as comprehensive as the scoreline suggests, indeed 0-3 would not have flattered Rangers, so in control were they. Villa only pulled back a consolation goal through James Chester in the 88th minute.
Observers from afar will wonder how it happened. Those at Villa Park could scarcely believe what was unfolding in front of their very eyes. Yet how?
Holloway recalled Joel Lynch, Pawel Wszolek and Ryan Manning, yet dropped Luke Freeman, arguably Rangers most attacking threat, to the bench. It seemed like a strange decision and with injuries to both Jack Robinson and Paul Smyth, the portents were not good.
However, to a man, the Rangers players raised their games. They played as a team and looked dangerous from the off. Maybe it was playing without pressure, there was no expectation and as a result they played with freedom. They moved the ball better than they have for some time and made the most of the wide open spaces of Villa Park. Composed on the ball, Rangers seemed to relish the opportunity of playing on the big stage and in Eberechi Eze they yet again had the game’s outstanding player, after his man of the match performance at the weekend in his debut start. Boy he is some player and Rangers must try and keep hold of him for as long as they can. Holloway has likened him to Rangers legend Stan Bowles which is really saying something, clearly an indication of how highly he rates him. Of more recent Rangers, Adel Taarabt might be a better comparison, albeit without the histrionics.
Holloway continued with the four at the back experiment that he had successfully employed in Rangers victory over Sunderland at the weekend. Maybe he has cracked it at last. Darnell Furlong had an excellent match and is now beginning to fulfill his vast potential. There definitely are now “Two Furlongs” as the Rangers supporters joyously chanted.
Jake Bidwell, at left back, had arguably his finest match in a Rangers shirt. Not only was he solid defensively, he chipped in with an assist, a pin point cross for Ryan Manning to nip in ahead of John Terry and head home after 12 minutes, and then a precise low strike himself from 20 yards after 33 minutes to make it 0-2, his first goal for the club.
Nedum Onuoha and Joel Lynch at centre back were largely untroubled. Lewis Grabban, who had been scoring for fun recently for Villa, hardly got a kick all match. Indeed Villa’s best chance, and arguably one of the most critical moments of the match, was a header from Jack Grealish, ghosting into the penalty area unmarked just on the stroke of half time, which he directed straight at Rangers keeper Alex Smithies. A yard either side and the end result could have been so different as that would have given the home side a real boost going into the break.
As it was, Grealish, a precocious talent and a match winner on his day, was well snaffled by Rangers’ Josh Scowen and Massimo Luongo in the middle of the park, and long before the end he looked an increasingly frustrated and forlorn figure. It just was not his night, nor that of Villa’s chief playmaker and conjurer of ‘assists’, Robert Snodgrass. He still managed a few dangerous crosses but was, by and large, well marked and did not have the influence that he usually does.
The same could also be said for Albert Adomah, Villa’s leading scorer. He tore Rangers apart at Loftus Road earlier in the season, scoring twice in a comfortable victory yet here his performance was a shadow of that.
All in all, as Steve Bruce had warned his players publicly before the match and reiterated after, this match was very much “after the Lord Mayor’s show” and his players did not seem to have the mental fortitude or wherewithal to raise their games to the level that they reached in demolishing the league leaders only a few days earlier. However, they should not beat themselves up over this. Granted it was disappointing for them and a ‘coupon buster’ as Holloway commented after, but they have been on such a good run that they should not let one defeat affect them. Forget it. Move on. Bolton away on Saturday and an opportunity to put things right and return to winnng ways.
For Rangers, it was a night for their unsung heroes, some of their fringe players who have had little opportunity to impress this season. Ryan Manning showed what a good footballer he really is having spent most of this season either injured or on the bench. In an unfamiliar right sided attacking role he not only scored with a deft header but he looked very assured in everything he did. The same could also be said for Pawel Wszolek, who played in an unfamiliar left sided forward position and he really put in a shift, having seemingly lost his confidence and attacking instincts in recent matches.
All worked out well for Luke Freeman in the end too. Unusually relegated to the bench, he appeared after 79 minutes and within 5 minutes had effectively made the game safe for Rangers, his clever turn and reverse shot into the corner making it 0-3, and signalling a mass exodus of the home support.
So a rare night of success for Rangers on the road. It must be said that their away performances against the better sides in the division have markedly improved albeit they have often come from losing positions and then have clawed back some respectability. However here, for once, they started off on the front foot and never really took a step back. Another big test awaits for them this Saturday when they travel to West London neighbours Fulham, the Championship’s form team, for the televised lunchtime kickoff and Holloway will want his players to prove that this performance was not just a one off.
Yet for what happened last night, Rangers players and supporters should just reflect and enjoy the moment. Professional sport and particularly Championship football is a hard graft, it is full of ups and downs, with arguably more downs than ups for the majority of teams yet every now and again there is a match which confounds all expectations. Joy abounds, smiling faces, arms in the air and fist pumps, it makes it all worthwhile. Football is good again. For one night only ?