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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
John Brewin at the London Stadium

Nicolò Zaniolo grabs point for Aston Villa as VAR denies West Ham at the last

Nicolò Zaniolo scores for Aston Villa in the 79th minute
Nicolò Zaniolo scores for Aston Villa in the 79th minute. Photograph: Tony Obrien/Reuters

After Tottenham’s pain, only a slight gain for Aston Villa. Though perhaps a draw and a three-point advantage over their fellow Champions League chasers will eventually prove enough when a first defeat in London under Unai Emery had beckoned.

Following Spurs’ capitulation at Fulham, Nicolò Zaniolo crashed home Villa’s equaliser from Moussa Diaby’s cross. Emery’s in-game management rescuing a point and, at the final whistle, the overriding emotion was relief for Villa and rage from the home fans at the final twist in the tale. Within injury time, it took five minutes and 37 seconds of VAR deliberation – the longest yet in the Premier League – in consultation with Jarred Gillett, the referee, to rule out a late winner from Tomas Soucek for a handball.

“It’s better to win but we draw and we have to accept it,” said Emery. “We changed tactics in the second half and we got chances to score a goal and in the end we did score.”

West Ham, denied two goals by technology ruling handball, could be far more frustrated. “The ­referee decided it was handball,” said Emery. David Moyes accepted the ­decision but only in passive-aggressive ­fashion. “You can contact Howard [Webb] yourself,” he said, arms folded. “If VAR think it’s right, then it’s right. I think football people see these things differently.”

The result only added to West Ham’s current existential wrangling. There is a considerable constituency of West Ham fans who would like their club to be managed by a more risk taking, progressive manager. So much for stability, a European trophy and this season’s Europa League run. That Villa, poor until Emery made his changes, were there for the taking will only add to the doubters’ case file.

“We done a job on them in the first half,” said Moyes. “Their substitutions altered it.” That Moyes’ team play percentage-game football rather than that employed by the game’s hipper protagonists, also counts against him. He rather enjoys putting one over on such types, but his team could not mirror defeats of Brighton, ­Tottenham and Arsenal by denying Emery, despite Villa’s obvious fatigue. ­Goalscorer Michail Antonio backed up by Lucas Paquetá, Jarrod Bowen and ­Mohammed Kudus was an uncharacteristically ­adventurous starting selection but Villa’s ­momentum eventually reverted West Ham back to a more conservative approach.

Perhaps that initial selection smelled Villa blood. Ollie Watkins, chasing an England place in the event of Harry Kane’s injury, was risked despite a gashed knee while ­Morgan Rogers, 21, was making his first start. Jhon Durán, 20, was also making a first league start of the season. He lasted just the first half. Without John McGinn, banned for his mid-air ­surgery on Tottenham’s Destiny Udogie, Villa lacked drive.

Vladimir Coufal, getting in the spirit of that attacking lineup by bombing on from full-back, supplied Antonio’s goal, a low cross demanding a diving header, a speciality for the striker. Antonio angled the ball where Emiliano Martínez could not reach for a first goal since August.

Matty Cash and Diaby’s half-time arrivals were Emery’s successful attempt to inject energy, the former’s arrival shunting Ezri Konsa back into central defence. Konsa was soon an important figure in the melee that seemed to have brought Antonio a second goal, only for VAR to rule the striker’s arm had made a crucial touch.

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That situation was echoed in the final seconds, yet more confusion reigning. The goalpost seemed to get in the way of Stockley Park’s operatives as their footage shunted back and forward repeatedly until Gillett was called across to decide.

If Antonio’s energy levels were exhausted, his team lacked a focal point once he was withdrawn, and Zaniolo’s equaliser reflected the growing swell of pressure and his eye-catching impact. “Zaniolo is working and he is focused,” said Emery of the Italian, lesser spotted this season. His goal may yet prove crucial.

Had Cash, in the dying embers, not blocked a James Ward-Prowse shot and then VAR intervened more fatefully, Villa might have left London with even less. Their duel with Spurs over fourth and fifth is a significant distance from being decided.

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