CLASS OF ACE IN THE PACK JACK...

Je­d­i­nak goal has Villa in con­trol

The Football League Paper - - CHAMPIONSHIP - By Chris Dunlavy

VIC­TO­RI­OUS Villa boss Steve Bruce hailed “won­der­ful” Jack Gre­al­ish after the young­ster put lack­lus­tre Boro to the sword.

The 22-year-old teed up Mile Je­d­i­nak to give the vis­i­tors a first-leg lead and turned in a daz­zling dis­play that re­called his nerve­less emer­gence against Liver­pool as a teenager back in 2015.

Ques­tions have since been raised over the at­tacker’s fit­ness and at­ti­tude, but Bruce said a match-win­ning per­for­mance is proof of Gre­al­ish’s grow­ing ma­tu­rity.

“He gets you off your seat, doesn’t he?” said Bruce, who moved one step closer to a fifth pro­mo­tion from the Cham­pi­onship. “He’s a won­der­ful tal­ent. He did all the bits and pieces that we asked him to.

“He’s only 22. The penny is start­ing to drop. And with peo­ple like John Terry, Glenn Whe­lan and Mile Je­d­i­nak – he’s now look­ing up to peo­ple who do things prop­erly, rather than be­ing sur­rounded by peo­ple who don’t.

“Jack has grasped the net­tle in the last four months and you’re start­ing to see a real world-class tal­ent. If he keeps pro­gress­ing, he’ll have a won­der­ful ca­reer.”

Bruce also praised Alan Hut­ton, the vet­eran full-back who ex­pertly shack­led Boro dan­ger­man Adama Traore.

“We’ve based all our train­ing around stop­ping Traore,” he re­vealed. “And Alan was ter­rific. He rolled his sleeves up, as I knew he would do. He’s out of con­tract at the end of the year and if any per­for­mance de­served a new one, it was that. He was im­mense.”

For all the talk of life-chang­ing riches, this was a play-off that put pro­mo­tion in per­spec­tive. In the Villa dugout, Bruce was reel­ing from the death of both par­ents in the space of 88 days, an ex­pe­ri­ence he said had shaken him to the bones.

Boro mean­while, wel­comed Leo Per­covich, the pop­u­lar for­mer coach who lost two young daugh­ters in a car ac­ci­dent in Brazil last year. Teessiders raised thou­sands to help pay for funer­als, and the med­i­cal care of his wife and son, who both sur­vived the crash.

The Uruguayan’s mov­ing pre­match ad­dress rocked the River­side to its foun­da­tions, ig­nit­ing an al­ready buoy­ant at­mos­phere. Boro’s play­ers, how­ever, were far from ablaze.

Hes­i­tant. Edgy. Er­ror-strewn. For 20 min­utes, the home side sat sui­ci­dally deep and it was no sur­prise when Mile Je­d­i­nak lost Ryan Shot­ton to glance home a Gre­al­ish cor­ner.

Gre­al­ish, pos­i­tive and fear­less, was ev­ery­thing Boro weren’t. Im­prove­ment had to come and, with Traore toiling, it was Jonny How­son who took the ini­tia­tive.

Twice in five min­utes the mid­fielder picked out Britt As­som­ba­longa, who had peeled off James Ch­ester at the back post. Twice the striker fluffed it, thrash­ing over and wide.

In-be­tween, Robert Sn­od­grass missed a free header. The Scot also saw a curl­ing strike bril­liantly tipped onto the post by Boro keeper Dar­ren Ran­dolph as Villa ended the half on top.

“A mag­nif­i­cent save,” said Bruce. “If that goes in, it might be all over.” Tony Pulis took a dif­fer­ent tack. “A good save,” he said. “But that was their only shot on tar­get.”

Maybe, but it was still more threat than Boro of­fered. Fabio – im­pres­sive after com­ing on for the in­jured Daniel Ayala – had a header saved, flashed a cross through the six-yard box, then had a strike de­flected wide.

Never, though, did they build up a head of steam as Villa, ex­pertly mar­shalled by John Terry, sat deep and con­tained with ease.

“We’re ob­vi­ously dis­ap­pointed, es­pe­cially con­ced­ing through a set piece,” said a dis­ap­pointed Pulis, who walked out of his press con­fer­ence after field­ing just a hand­ful of ques­tions. “Even so, I thought we did enough not to lose.”

CRUNCH: As­ton Villa’s Jack Gre­al­ish puts in a crunch­ing tackle on Mid­dles­brough winger Adama Traore

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