Aston Villa 1-1 Sheffield United: John McGinn calls for perspective amid ‘miracle’ Premier League title race

John McGinn and Ollie Watkins

If you win, you are Premier League champions in waiting. If you don’t, you are a finished club with no hope of success.

Such is the life of a team contending at the very top of the league, a life which Aston Villa are having to get used to.

The truth, as is often the case, is somewhere in the middle following the draw at home to Sheffield United in their final match before Christmas.

A win would have put Villa top of the Premier League for the first time since August 2011 – and potentially for the first time on Christmas Day since 1998 if other results went their way too.

They missed that opportunity after being frustrated by a defensively disciplined United side who sucker punched the hosts through a goal from Villa academy product Cameron Archer with two minutes of normal time remaining.

Although Nicolo Zaniolo rescued Villa a point in the seventh minute of injury time, they must settle for the second prize of being level on goal difference with leaders Arsenal, who host third-placed Liverpool on Saturday.

It is easy to categorise this result as Unai Emery’s side fluffing their moment in the spotlight and blowing their title dreams.

The reality, as Villa midfielder John McGinn said, is less dramatic.

“We weren’t at our free-flowing best. They were better at their plan than we were at ours tonight,” said McGinn.

“We’re joint top of the league at the moment. We are disappointed we couldn’t go clear at the top outright, but we need to put into perspective how good a run we’ve been on at home and it was bound to come to an end at some point.

“It shows the mentality shift that it feels like a defeat.”

‘Top four for Villa would be a miracle’

Leon Bailey

Certainly Villa dominated play with 78% of possession, their most in a Premier League fixture since records began.

But they only had four shots on target and, after a lightning start, became visibly more nervous in their decision making as the pressure of the situation, and a home crowd waiting to exhale, started to tell.

They thought that moment came when Leon Bailey swept the ball home, only for the goal to be ruled out for a foul by Jacob Ramsey on away keeper Wes Foderingham.

That really put Villa off their stride, and though Sheffield United didn’t attempt a shot in this match until the 78th minute, they had more efforts than Aston Villa in the final 15 minutes of play.

Yet the fact they showed enough guts to get a point from this game is a positive demonstrator that Villa can keep pace among the regular top four contenders – and still achieve something remarkable.

Sky Sports pundit Gary Neville said: “I think if they were to finish fifth it would be an incredible result. If they were to finish above that it would be an absolute miracle.

“I think they will just fade away a little bit and fight for that last Champions League place.”

If Villa need a pick-me-up after dropping two points here, it could be found in their record still being better than the last team to truly shock the established Premier League order.

Going into this game, Villa had the exact same record as Leicester City in the 2015-16 season when they won the league – 12 wins, two draws and three losses from 17 games.

Leicester lost their 18th game, while Villa snatched a draw. So there are reasons to be cheerful, despite failing to win here.

‘We lost control of the game’

Chris Wilder

For Emery, more tangible comfort comes from grabbing a point when they could have completely lost their nerve after Archer’s goal and several debatable refereeing calls including Bailey’s disallowed strike.

“It was a very good point,” he said. “We were expecting Sheffield to be defensively very strong, in their plan they were successful and they scored when we lost control of the game in the last 20 minutes.

“We were upset and frustrated after the review for the goal. We have to understand decisions even if we don’t agree, and we lost control of the game.

“We were frustrated, I wanted three points but we have to appreciate how well Sheffield played today.”

For Sheffield United manager Chris Wilder, a point is justification for a highly defensive style of play – including a 5-4-1 formation out of possession.

Archer’s goal was the Blades’ first at Villa Park in the league since Brian Deane scored in January 1993. This is just their second Premier League point in six games at this ground.

“Everyone in the world expected a home win tonight,” Wilder said. “We had to make it uncomfortable for the opposition and I’m not embarrassed. It’s not anti-football. It’s up to them to break us down.

“We go to every ground expecting their A-game. Villa are on a fabulous run, we had to work diligently knowing they have some brilliant players.”

So it is left to Villa to pick themselves up and carry on this remarkable season and unexpected title race.

The last time they were in a position like this at Christmas was when they topped the table on 25 December 1998. From January, they went on a 10-match winless league run and fell to a sixth-place finish.

It would be too easy and too early to say history is repeating itself. As McGinn said, perspective is required.

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