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The Guardian - UK
The Guardian - UK
Peter Lansley at Villa Park

Watkins inspires Aston Villa to win over Bournemouth to boost top-four hopes

Aston Villa players celebrate Ollie Watkins’ role in their third goal
Aston Villa players celebrate Ollie Watkins’ role in their third goal. Photograph: Jason Cairnduff/Action Images/Reuters

What a week for Aston Villa: following up a memorable victory away to Premier League leaders Arsenal with a last-gasp shootout triumph in Europe, they stretched their lead over Tottenham to six points in the chase for fourth place as Ollie Watkins inspired them to this ultimately comfortable win.

The forward was man of the match even though he did not score, tireless in his running and the creator of two more goals as Villa overcame Dominic Solanke’s early penalty to make it five home games unbeaten. Qualification for the Champions League is in their control, even if Spurs have two games in hand.

After Morgan Rogers equalised just before half-time, Watkins stepped up to create the second-half goals for Moussa Diaby and Leon Bailey, making him the Premier League’s leading goal creator, with 12 assists. Surely Watkins, who has also scored 19 league goals this season, even if unconvincing in his cameos for England, should be on the plane for the Euros as Harry Kane’s deputy this summer.

Unai Emery believes Watkins, at 28, is still improving. “He’s adding more things tactically and he’s comfortable scoring goals and making assists playing for the team in the structure we have tactically,” the Villa manager said.

“The commitment to the work we need him to do is always fantastic – [it is about] more than scoring goals or assists.

“He’s not just important for us but the national team as a player and he’s fantastic. He deserves this because he’s a very hard worker every day – always he wants more and more and he’s always asking how to improve.”

Emery’s own ascent has been noticed beyond B6. Lothar Matthäus, the former Germany captain, believes the Villa manager would be a good fit to succeed Thomas Tuchel at Bayern Munich this summer. He did not give the notion much oxygen when asked about the reference after the game. “I am focused here 100% ,” he said.

Still, however, Emi Martínez is Villa’s cheerleader-in-chief, playing the crowd. There was a moment just after the hour mark, with Villa having just gone ahead, when the keeper responded to saving Dango Ouattara’s point-blank header by turning to the North Stand behind his goal and pumping his fists until they broke out with “Emi Martínez – world’s No 1”. There’s little stopping Villa at the moment.

Martínez, after his penalty heroics in Thursday night’s Europa Conference League quarter-final, was under the spot-kick spotlight once again here. This time however he was beaten by Solanke’s convincing penalty as Villa struggled initially.

When Matty Cash slid in to take out Milos Kerkez, it was not against the run of play that Bournemouth took the lead.

There was a pivotal moment nine minutes before the break that could have led this game to a very different denouement. Solanke was bearing down on goal, down the inside-left channel, with the prospect of a 2-0 lead beckoning, when Ezri Konsa recovered to make a superb tackle and clear for a corner. Cue fist bumps and high fives all round.

Villa’s relief broke out into rapture in first-half stoppage time. Bailey, from inside the centre circle, played an exquisite pass with the outside of his left foot to set Rogers running down the left-hand side.

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The recalled winger composed himself, cut inside Adam Smith with a superb touch before shooting high into the net.

Sure enough Villa took over in the second half, with Watkins particularly influential, running the show at times. Firstly the England striker took his time to measure the perfect pass for Diaby to slot in his sixth Premier League goal of the season.

He helped safeguard the points when, receiving the ball with back to goal, he turned his man superbly, before laying the ball into Diaby. Watkins managed to winkle his way on to the return, rounding Neto, and shooting across the face of goal. There, just in case, was Bailey to tap in his 10th goal of the season.

Andoni Iraola was gracious in his appreciation of his team’s chief tormentor. “He’s an amazing player,” the Bournemouth manager said. “He is a bit like Dom with us; he gives the goals, the numbers, but so much more. He’s very complete.”

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