Swansea City under-23s were denied a second successive Premier League Cup title after losing a penalty shoot-out 4-1 to winners Aston Villa at the Liberty Stadium.
In an end-to-end final on Friday evening, both sides made it an entertaining tie but neither could find a way through to break the deadlock after a hard-fought 120 minutes.
It was very much a different sort of the game to some of the recent ones at the Liberty Stadium, particularly our final Premier League 2 league game against a defensive Sunderland side.
We were allowed to dominate possession from the start and bring the ball out from the back in what felt like a training session at times, but Aston Villa provided a different challenge altogether. They were dynamic from the kick-off and showed some excellent touches of skill here and there to quickly show that, despite being in a league lower, they were most certainly a match for the Swans.
It was end to end stuff right from the start. With less than 10 minutes played, both sides had got the ball inside the box and into a goalscoring position. Firstly, the Swans played some nice, one-touch football on the edge of the area but the ball finally ended up being deflected harmlessly into the goalkeeper’s hands. Quickly, at the other end, Aston Villa showed their attacking credentials as they saw a shot deflect off a Swansea defender, hit the woodwork and go out for a corner.
The visitors were full of energy and were making the Swans work hard. It was no training session compared to some of the previous matches we’ve seen, and it was just fortunate at times that – like ourselves – the final ball or decision wasn’t quite good enough.
Aston Villa were then forced into making a couple of excellent tackles to deny some good shooting chances inside the box from the hosts. The first saw Biabi send Gorre through on goal before being denied, and Byers quickly created another opportunity moments later.
With around half hour played, the Swans finally start to get something of a foothold in the game after a strong start from the visitors. A flurry of action in the final third helped us to achieve that, and it wasn’t until 35 minutes did we see Villa get involved again in front of the South Stand. A low shot was driven in from the right, a striker got a touch inside the box but couldn’t direct it goalwards. The ball then hanged around inside the box for a moment before the danger is finally cleared. A decent half-chance there, the Villa player was in a good position in space to score but he just couldn’t connect properly first time.
On the stroke of half-time, Villa tried their luck from distance but it’s a routine save for Benda.
Aston Villa are looking to join the Swans in the Premier League 2 division next season via the playoffs, after finishing second in the table behind Blackburn Rovers. They weren’t lacking creative talent and I’m sure they’d hold their own in PL2 – like we have – if they’re successful in the playoffs.
On numerous occasions in the game, we saw both sides sending in low crosses but nobody was able to get on the end of them. I lost count how many balls came across the face of the box and were crying out for a late runner to meet it with a shot on goal.
???? First half action from tonight's #PLCup final…
— Swansea City AFC (@SwansOfficial) May 4, 2018
Half Time: Swans U23s 0-0 Aston Villa U23s
Aston Villa came out for the second half much the stronger side, and after about 15 minutes of good dominance inside our half, you wondered if it might be a case of when not if they’d open the scoring.
They started with a few long-range efforts that flew off target, Gorre had one of his own and that was all we managed for the first 20 minutes or so.
Benda, in goal for the Swans, looked very solid and assured throughout. He looked far more confident and capable compared to Mulder who played a few games ago. His aerial catching was stronger, not to mention his distribution too. He made a few excellent saves to keep the scores level at 0-0, one, in particular, saw him rush out from his goalline to make a vital save with his leg as a Villa player looked to place the ball past him in a one-on-one situation.
The game was very much in the balance at this point but Villa still looked like the side more likely to get a winner. Swansea desperately needed to freshen things up and the substitution of Baker-Richardson on for Biabi up front helped that.
And finally, we managed to get the ball into the final third again as we needed to relieve Villa’s constant pressure. Gorre jinked his way past a couple of defenders inside the box but the goalkeeper was quick to rush out and deny him a shooting chance at his feet.
Back at the other end, Villa saw another big chance go begging, and this time it was a header missed at the far post following a decent cross from the left.
Substitute Baker-Richardson got his first chance in front of goal. This must have been one of the very few moments when a low cross was met by a player, but the striker dragged a shot wide of the target. It was a great position but as was the story of the night really, the final ball was lacking that bit of quality.
The Swans were now getting more and more back into the game. Dan James tried to pick out right-back Aaron Lewis at the far post, but his cross bounced just beyond him. Moments later, Matic’s long-range shot was routinely saved.
Then came the big penalty shout in the final few minutes of the second half. Lewis again found himself in space on the right side of the penalty box when it looked like his legs were taken away from him. The referee ignored penalty claims much to the frustration of the fullback and the West Stand crowd.
Dan James was the next player to go down, this time just outside the box but he was booked for diving. It was difficult to see the exact contact, but the foul hardly looked convincing in all honesty, James too didn’t have too many complaints when showed the yellow card either.
After 90 minutes: Swans U23s 0-0 Aston Villa U23s
We remain goalless at the end of the first half in extra time.
— Swansea City AFC (@SwansOfficial) May 4, 2018
The chances kept coming during the extra 30 minutes before the penalty shoot-out. Our best chance to avoid the shoot-out came when the ball bounced nicely in the box for Cabango, but he couldn’t direct the ball downwards as he volleyed over the bar following a corner.
Still, neither side could find a way through and it had to be penalties to settle the winner. Both sides were very evenly matched, both created chances and over the 120 minutes, it would be difficult to say who edged it. I’m sure the Swans will be disappointed that they didn’t take one of their chances, but on the other hand, they were let off on more than one occasion during Villa’s strongest spell early in the second half.
Byers was first to step up for his spot-kick and his effort was saved after Villa had put themselves 1-0 up. Aaron Lewis confidently put his penalty away to make it 2-1 before Villa made it 3. Jack Evans’ also saw his penalty saved before Clarke made it 4-1 to win it for Villa.
A few mentions…
Steven Benda – in goal – looks a great prospect, very confident and composed – more so than Mulder did recently.
Matthew Blake – left back – the 18-year-old hasn’t played for the under-23s for very long but you can instantly see why he was promoted to the side. Excellent at getting up and down the flank and does both the defensive and offensive side of the game well.
Jack Evans – reminds me a bit of Ki in a way, but without the softness in the tackle. Sits deep in front of the defence and is always available for a pass. Can sometimes get caught in possession, but mostly solid.
Dan James – has looked quieter in recent games, and had quiet spells in this one but showed some quality at times too. Grew more into the game in the final 15-20 minutes when we started creating chances again.
George Byers – standout player for me. He makes it look effortless at times and just looks a cut above the rest. He’ll obviously be disappointed to miss his penalty but he was well worthy of his under-23s player of the season award.
Botti Biabi – I’m still yet to be convinced of Biabi. Often isolated up top on his own which doesn’t help, but he’s often subbed and we tend to look a bit more dynamic up in attack when Baker-Richardson comes on.
Kenji Gorre – still yet to be convinced by Gorre either. Lacks strength, and while he can get past a player or three, his final ball is usually lacking at the end. Mind you, I’ve only seen him in action in the last 3 or 4 games, so he might have been better earlier this season when he was scoring goals.
Steven Benda, Aaron Lewis, Matthew Blake, Jack Evans, Cian Harries (capt), Ben Cabango, Daniel James, Adnan Marić (Marco Dulca, 112), Botti Biabi (Courtney Baker-Richardson, 68), George Byers, Kenji Gorrè.
Subs not used: Keiran Evans, Gregor Zabret, Keston Davies.
Aston Villa U23s
Matija Sarkic, Isaiah Bazeley-Graham, Mitchell Clark, Jordan Lyden (capt), Dominic Bevan, Jack Clarke, Corey Blackett-Taylor (Alex Prosser, 68), Jake Doyle-Harris, Rushian Hepburn-Murphy, Andre Green (Jordan Cox, 86), Callum O’Hare (Kelsey Mooney, 95).
Subs not used: Viktor Johannson, Oscar Borg.
A word from the boss…
“Our heads are down but we need to look at what we have achieved this season,”
“The whole team gave a fantastic effort and it was a game that could have gone either way. Both teams created some good chances.
“It hurts to lose after getting to the final. But two finals in two years and a fourth place finish in the league is a real good effort from the boys.
“This group will have to learn and grow from defeats like this and come back stronger if they want careers in football.
“When the pain of this defeat goes we will take stock and be very pleased of what we have achieved this season.” – Gary Richards