The first friendly of Aston Villa’s US tour was a success for newly appointed manager Paul Lambert, as they opened a 3 game preseason set in the United States. Their first stop was PPL Park in suburban Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. An accurate Nathan Delfouneso strike settled the scoreline 1-0 in favor of the visitors.
Villa arrived in one of the worst heatwaves that has been seen on the Eastern Seaboard in years. The temperature at PPL Park this evening was a sticky 84°F, a tough environment for the English side to enter. The goalscorer Delfouneso gave some insight into the conditions: “It’s very different. It’s a different sort of heat out here. It’s just really hot, it’s tough to adjust to, and we just try to get on with it.”
And get on with it is what they did. A starting eleven that included the likes of Darren Bent, Stephen Ireland, James Collins, and Stephen Warnock took to the pitch. There were also some players looking to battle for spots in the first team, including Delfouneso, Brett Holman, and even goalkeeper Brad Guzan who recently re-signed with the Claret and Blue. The Philadelphia Union also started a mixture of first team and reserves, trying to preserve their fitness for a weekend rivalry match against New York.
The match itself didn’t exhibit much flow, likely a product of the conditions and the new system. Lambert helped Norwich City to two consecutive promotions largely on the back of a 4-3-1-2 tactic, and that was employed for much of this match. Villa scattered in some 4-4-2 play here and there as well. The Villans’ primary method of attack was to try and find space for Bent and Delfouneso behind the Union backline. It nearly paid off in the 12th minute, as Delfouneso was in on Zac MacMath. The Philadelphia keeper was good enough to stop the shot, closing him down and getting his foot on the shot from 8 yards.
The 43rd minute saw the lone goal, set up from the left by Warnock. Delfouneso was given a rather simple pass about 25 yards from goal. He turned, advanced slightly without pressure from the Union defense, and struck the shot. The curling ball eluded MacMath, slipping inside the far post.
Both teams enjoyed a few chances in the second half. Aston Villa’s best opportunities came through the pace of substitute Gabby Agbonlahor. In the first case in the 64th minute, he was played into open space, but the Union defense caught him as he tried to switch feet. He is weak attempt on goal was blocked down by Porfirio Lopez. The second came in stoppage time, as Agbonlahor raced substitute keeper Chase Harrison for the ball just inside the area. Harrison beat him there, but he lost control and it came free to substitute Charles N’Zogbia just outside the area. Jumping up from the pitch, the keeper was in perfect position to catch and hold the blast.
If there were any immediate concerns in the second half, they came in the defensive midfield. Fabian Delph and Chris Herd were responsible for some uncharacteristically relaxed play in engineering the build, allowing Union wing Josue Martinez to gain the ball and make counter runs at the backline. Fortunately for Villa Richard Dunne and Guzan were able to snuff out any potential opportunities.
With the match over, we had the chance to ask manager Paul Lambert if he has any expectations for the new season, given Villa’s struggles under Alex McLeish. “What happened last year is in the past. I can’t affect that. This is a big football club, and I know the expectancy levels are really high, but I think the crowd will get behind us, and we’ll be fine. I never really set targets. I have targets in my own head. I never put more pressure on the players. They’re under pressure as it is, so if I keep getting that effort and commitment from them, we’ll be okay.”
We also asked what it means to him coming to a club with Villa’s history. “Norwich was brilliant. I really enjoyed my team there. We had three great years there. Aston Villa’s tradition and history is huge. They’ve won a European Cup. There’s not many teams in European football can say that. I’m under no illusions how hard it’s going to be. It is a great challenge, which I’ll try to do everything I can to make a good go of it.”
The crowd at PPL Park had a solid section of Villa supporters, who enjoyed some spirited jousting with the Sons of Ben Supporters Group for the Union. Aston Villa moves on to the Windy City for another friendly on Saturday night against the Chicago Fire. The match is scheduled to kickoff at around 8:30 EDT.