Nottingham Forest have had 11 full-time managers since Aston Villa last opened a calendar year with successive wins in 2009, testimony to how these former European Cup-winning clubs have struggled to get even close to returning to past glories, but Scott Hogan’s winner enabled Villa to climb stealthily up to fourth place in the Championship and deflate Aitor Karanka’s bow in the east Midlands.
Steve Bruce is content for Villa to be in the mix, five points behind second-placed Derby County, as his authoritative side made it three league wins in a row without conceding, too controlled for an inexperienced Forest team. “That’s what I’ve banked on, the experience and the knowhow,” the Villa manager said. “Firstly, you need to be able to handle playing for Aston Villa, and then to cope when the real tickly bit starts, when the daffodils and the tulips start appearing. We’re only fourth, but we’re in the mix.”
Six days after Arsenal were vanquished at the City Ground, the extremes of last weekend’s FA Cup upsets were reversed. Forest gave Karanka a clear idea of how far they need to progress as Villa dismissed their giantkilling by Peterborough to maintain a consistent run of league form in which they have lost just four times in 24 games. “Our experience showed,” Bruce said. “Our big players performed. I thought we were very comfortable.”
Bruce confirmed that Jonathan Kodjia’s ankle injury should keep him out for the season – “forget about him” – but Hogan is starting to suggest he can be the No9 to lead Villa back towards the top level. “I’m delighted for Scotty,” the manager said. “It’s been a bit stop-start. Like any striker, they need goals and you could see the confidence ooze out of him after he scored against Bristol [City, on New Year’s Day]. All of a sudden Scott looks a very good player again. In the second half of the season, he could be crucial for us.”
Karanka took a low-key bow, coming out from the tunnel moments before kick-off with no wave to the crowd, but then he may have known of Villa’s habit of debunking newly appointed managers. Both Tony Pulis and Chris Coleman have fallen to Villa upon taking charge of their respective clubs recently and the former Middlesbrough head coach was soon having to encourage his new charges to rally from going behind.
Robert Snodgrass is in imperious form, with three goals in Villa’s wins over Bristol City and Middlesbrough, and there was a wicked whip on his left-foot delivery from the right hand side for Hogan to run in from the blindside and head in before Jordan Smith could claim.
Snodgrass’s delivery also invited John Terry, on his first league start since 4 November after breaking a metatarsal, to head against the crossbar. Ben Osborn, neat and inventive on the ball from the heart of Forest’s midfield, crashed in such a powerful shot that the returning Glenn Whelan, in for the ill Mile Jedinak, was injured in throwing himself in the way and did not come out for the second half.
Snodgrass and Jack Grealish almost added further goals for Villa as they hushed the home crowd who had enjoyed themselves so raucously against Arsenal. Forest had spells of dominance but their neat passing was invariably a second too slow, allowing Villa to keep their compact shape and barely fear penetration. Kieran Dowell had a powerful effort tipped over late on but Villa just looked too streetwise.
Forest have gained only one point from eight games against the Championship’s top six so Karanka, who has signed until 2020, was not too distraught. “When you lose you cannot be pleased but after only two or three days with the squad against a team like Villa I have positive things to think about the squad,” he said. “We have to improve a lot. We have quality up front but the job now is to organise the team, to be more aggressive, more intense because in the Championship if you are not aggressive, if you are not intense, you are not going to win games.”