LONDON – Aston Villa took advantage of a late collapse from West Bromwich Albion to edge a 2-1 victory over their midlands rivals in the Championship play-off semi-final first leg on Saturday.
Dean Smith’s side trailed to Dwight Gayle’s first half opener at Villa Park, but they recovered thanks to an inspired from highly-rated midfielder Jack Grealish.
Grealish set up Conor Hourihane’s second half equaliser and just 202 seconds later he won the penalty that was slotted home by Tammy Abraham.
Albion’s implosion was complete when Gayle was sent off for a second yellow card late on, ruling the striker out of Tuesday’s second leg at the Hawthorns.
That makes Villa slight favourites to return to Wembley 12 months on from losing the play-off final against Fulham.
With a lucrative place in the Premier League up for grabs, both sides were determined to seize the initiative.
John McGinn and Grealish combined for a short corner to set up Glenn Whelan, who nodded over from six yards.
Jay Rodriguez was teed up on the edge of the area and it took a fine save from Jed Steer to turn the Albion striker’s shot onto the crossbar.
Albion took a 16th-minute lead when Whelan’s awful touch allowed Gayle to race towards the area where Tyrone Mings and Axel Tuanzebe scrambled to cover.
The on-loan Newcastle striker’s low drive from 18 yards arrowed into the corner for his eighth goal in eight games.
An element of panic hung in the Villa Park air as Abraham glanced wide.
The home jitters grew along with the frustration at Albion’s perceived time wasting, with Gayle booked for delaying tactics.
Those worries were erased in spectacular fashion as Villa turned the game with two goals in four minutes.
Grealish created space for Hourihane and when he laid the ball off, Hourihane’s first-time strike from 20 yards flew just inside a post in the 75th minute.
Then Abraham sent Villa Park wild when he scored from the spot after Kieran Gibbs brought down Grealish.
Albion’s woes were compounded with two minutes left when Gayle slid in to reach James Morrison’s cross but clattered Steer and saw red.