Ten days after feeling aggrieved at Manchester City benefitting from a grey area of the rulebook, this time Aston Villa could count themselves fortunate after eking out victory courtesy of Ross Barkley after Southampton were deprived of a first-half penalty.
The video assistant referee decided against awarding Saints a spot-kick when Matt Cash handled and, inevitably, with six minutes to play, it was the Villa defender who made a last-ditch block to deny Jack Stephens an equaliser after John McGinn flung his body on the line. Into stoppage time, Danny Ings had the ball in the net, leading Ralph Hasenhüttl to charge on to the pitch in delight but the VAR again deflated the Saints.
Villa were not at their best but Barkley’s header earned a second win in six league matches. Southampton, too, have won admirers for their fearlessness this season but are sliding after winning just one of their past eight league matches. Things could have turned out differently had Southampton prospered from a late corner that led to three last-ditch blocks or if Ings had been a centimetre or two closer to halfway before poking in.
These teams shared seven goals when they met at Villa Park last month so perhaps it was no surprise that this was another supercharged occasion. The talking point, however, was not an entertaining clash of similar high-octane styles but inevitably how those stewing over endless replays in a cubbyhole at Stockley Park came to allow Cash off scot-free. Ings did brilliantly, bamboozling Douglas Luiz inside the box with an exquisite flick before laying the ball on for Stuart Armstrong, whose vicious strike clearly struck Cash’s left arm. But Mike Dean, the VAR, ruled against handball on the basis that the ball first struck the Villa defender’s thigh en route to his arm.
Villa were fortuitous and Southampton, whose coaching staff were quick to ask questions of the fourth official Tim Robinson, baffled but the hosts did not relent. Ings connected with a teasing cross by Ryan Bertrand but failed to steer the ball goalwards and James Ward-Prowse later spied Ings in the box before Villa nipped in to avert the danger. Armstrong and Bertrand both rattled the side netting to the relief of Emi Martínez in a lively first half that was arguably shaded by the Saints, who wore black armbands in tribute to John Mortimore, the former Chelsea defender and Southampton club president.
But it was Villa who headed down the tunnel with an advantage. The former Southampton left-back Matt Targett freed Jack Grealish down the left and the Villa captain scooped a delicious first-time cross into the box for Barkley to power in four minutes before the interval. The ball seemed to hang in the air forever but Barkley arrived unchallenged to direct a header into the corner. It was the first time Grealish had wriggled free of the Southampton skipper Ward-Prowse, who shifted to right-back in the absence of the injured Kyle Walker-Peters. Moments earlier Alex McCarthy saved well from Ollie Watkins, who also sent a stinging strike at goal after holding off Jan Bednarek.
Hasenhüttl has made it clear that versatility is king when it comes to recruiting players before Monday’s transfer deadline, hence his interest in the Arsenal full-back Ainsley Maitland-Niles, who can operate on both flanks as well as in midfield. They have been down to the bare bones in recent weeks but did welcome back the authoritative Oriol Romeu, one of three changes, while the fit-again Nathan Redmond was preferred to Che Adams in attack alongside Ings. Moussa Djenepo, the latest Saint to return from injury, came off the bench for the final half an hour before Adams entered in place of Theo Walcott, who departed limping.
Southampton had plenty of possession but struggled to hurt Villa, with Ezri Konsa’s clearance to deny Ibrahima Diallo as ropey as things got until Adams lashed at goal when slipped through by Ings. Martínez saved well before Cash cleared. When Diallo overcooked a pass for the overlapping Bertrand, Hasenhüttl screwed his face in despair.
For Southampton, it was one of those nights.