Burton Albion's hopes of a first away win of the season were dashed by Ross McCormack's second half winner as Aston Villa ran out 2-1 winners in a free flowing Boxing Day encounter at Villa Park. The £12m summer signing bagged his first goal since September to condemn the Brewers to another defeat on the road but for all their multi milion pound signings it was the men in yellow and black who came out of the game with greater credit, if not the all important points.
Leandro Bacuna had edged the Villains ahead on the quarter of an hour mark before Jamie Ward marked his return to the club that started him off in the game with a stunning equaliser just after the half hour mark. The Irish international acrobatically launched himself at a cross from Brayford sending the ball across keeper Mark Bunn for his fourth goal in Burton colours.
Albion were good value for being on level terms until McCormack pounced on a loose ball at the back post following a cross from substitute Jordan Ayew that evaded everyone inside the six yard box.
For the second week running Albion had strong shouts for a penalty deep in stoppage time, this time Tom Naylor being wrestled to the ground as he tried to meet Matty Palmer's free kick with Villa getting something of a let off, referee Stephen Martin failing to spot the foul and denying Albion what looked a cast iron penalty. It was harsh on Albion who had once again taken on one of the more illustrious sides in the Sky Bet Championship and more than held their own but come away with nothing. Perhaps the final away game of the season at Rotherham on Thursday or 2017 will bring some better luck on the road.
Brewers boss Nigel Clough opted to stick with his back three for the Boxing Day visit to Villa Park. With Ben Turner struggling with a hamstring problem it was the same line-up across the defence as against Newcastle United last time out. The only change to the starting line-up saw Jamie Ward reinstated to the side against the club where it all started for him as a youngster. Chris O'Grady, struggling with a slight back problem was not risked from the start with Ward partnering Lucas Akins in attack.
Despite contemplating a raft of changes following their pre-Christmas win at Loftus Road, Villa boss Steve Bruce named an unchanged side looking to maintain the only unbeaten in the English professional leagues.
Burton made a steady start despite the vociferous backing for the home side from an expectant Boxing Day crowd. It was Albion who arguably had the first decent chance of the game, John Brayford scuffing a low shot after Matt Palmer's corner had been dummied inside the box.
Villa were on the back foot and when Lloyd Dyer's attempted pass cannonned off Mile Jedinak it forced keeper Mark Bunn into a smart stop. Encouraging signs indeed for Albion and Ward was also unlucky to see the ball go wide of the upright from inside the six yard box as another dangerous ball whipped through the Villa penalty area.
Albion found themselves stretched at the back on 11 minutes, Alan Hutton capitalising on an overlap on the right to send in a teasing cross that forced Jon McLaughlin to awkwardly punch clear, only to Leandro Bacuna, the midfielder returning the ball back goalwards but just wide of the upright with the Holte End anticipating the ball ending up in the back of the net.
BACUNA only had to wait until the quater of an hour mark to get his goal. Villa once again found space down their right and an excellent cross from Albert Adomah was met with a thumping header that left McLaughlin grasping at thin air as it flew past him.
Villa continued to look to the pace of Adomah and Bacuna in the wide areas but Albion were doing what they needed to cut off the supply lines.
Tom Naylor, venturing forwards from his midfield berth let fly from thirty yards with a low skidding shot but Bunn made sure he had everything behind the ball, saving at the second attempt.
At times Albion were struggling to put their passes together but when they did just after the half hour it resulted in the most brilliant goal that Albion have probably scored in the Championship so fat this term. Lucas Akins guided the ball out to the right and the cross from Brayford was on a plate for WARD to launch himself into an acrobatic bicycle kick that arrowed beyond Bunn into the top corner.
Ward was at it again five minutes later with a teasing, curling right footed effort that Bunn, this time, was able to claw away for a corner.
The goal clearly boosted the confidence of the visitors and by the time the half time whistle went there were more than a few dissenting voices in the Villa Park crowd more than a little concerned at the ease with which Albion were getting on the ball and beginning to impose themselves on their more illustrious hosts.
There was more than an element of frustration when referee Stephen Martin halted play with Albion on the attack for an injury to midfielder Gary Gardner. Although not a head injury the match official saw fit to stop the game to allow the Villa man treatment. Albion's frustrations were evident.
Half time: Aston Villa 1-1 Burton Albion
Gardner failed to reappear for the second half after picking up whatever injury he sustained at the end of the first period. His replacement was the hugely popular and talented Jack Grealish. The young midfielder was quickly into his stride running directly at the Burton defence. One of his first forays almost had the home side back in front. Bursting into the box he poked a shot at goal that squirmed through the hands of McLaughlin with Jonathan Kodjia applying a simple finish. Fortunately for Albion the striker had strayed offside and the assistant's flag came to their rescue.
Albion then suffered a blow as they lost Kyle McFadzean to injury. The big defender had looked uneasy for a few minutes after seemingly pulling a muscle in a chase with Kodjia. His replacement was O'Grady which brought about a switch in formation. Going to a flat back four, Tom Naylor dropped in at the back with O'Grady pushed up alongside Akins and Ward deployed just behind the front two in a 4-3-1-2 line-up.
The home side went close again when mile Jedinak spread the play out towards Ross McCormack on the left. The former Fulham hitman evaded a challenge from skipper John Mousinho, who picked up a yellow card in the aftermath, before sending in a low cross that was completely missed by Kodjia, falling nicely for Adomah who blazed over.
Ward picked up a yellow card for a mistimed challenge on Jordan Amavi before taking his leave from the game with twenty minutes to go after going down inside the centre circle. It prompted a quick switch back to 3-5-2 with Lee Williamson deployed into the centre of midfield.
Dyer clipped the outside of the post at the end of a lung bursting run before McLaughlin make a superb block to deny Kodjia as he launched himself at Grealish's cross. Had it gone in the assistant's flag had already gone up.
Villa made a change to introduce the pacy Jordan Ayew and the midfielder quickly made his presence felt with an assist for the second goal in the Burton net. Overlapping on the right he sent in a low cross that fizzed through the six yard box just evading the fingertips of McLaughlin and reaching McCORMACK at the far post with time to control and smash the ball home.
Ayew then had to be on his best defensive duty to prevent Brayford putting the Brewers level. The Albion wing back had got well forward into the box when he picked up a pass from Irvine. He took a touch and that was all Ayew needed to lunge in and make the all important block.
Albion were only denied a last gasp equaliser by a fingertip save from Bunn. Mousinho's marauding run was halted by Ayew allowing Palmer to swing in another dangerous free kick. As the ball flew into the penalty area Naylor seemed to be dragged to the floor with Brayford denied by the keeper's fingertips at the back post. Another decision at the end that didnt go Albion's way and the frustrations of the Albion players and bench were clearly visible at the final whistle which came moments later.