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Aston Villa 2-1 West Bromwich Albion: Conor Hourihane and Tammy Abraham give hosts edge

Tammy Abraham’s 26th goal of the season gives Aston Villa the advantage going into Tuesday’s second leg at The Hawthorns

Aston Villa struck twice inside three second-half minutes to earn themselves the advantage in their first leg of their Championship play-off semi-final with West Bromwich Albion.

Substitute Conor Hourihane’s brilliant 25-yarder and then a Tammy Abraham penalty turned the tie on its head following Dwight Gayle’s first-half strike.

But the real tipping point of the two-leg contest may have come two minutes from the end of normal time when Baggies striker Gayle was sent off for sliding in late on Villa keeper Jed Steer.

Having earlier been booked for time wasting, he got away with a similarly committed challenge on the halfway line not long earlier, but this time he was shown his second yellow card of the game by referee Graham Scott.

Although West Brom’s 10 men survived the seven minutes of added time, the effect of Gayle’s dismissal may be more keenly felt on Tuesday when Albion’s top scorer will now be suspended for the second leg at The Hawthorns.

Having opted to go with three central defenders and with Jay Rodriguez in a more withdrawn role, Albion effectively operated for the majority of the game with a six-man midfield.

And it worked well until Hourihane scored, eight minutes after coming on for Glenn Whelan as part of a double substitution, to help make up for the error made by his fellow midfielder in the build-up to Albion’s goal.

Errors hand Albion early initiative

After making a lively start, Villa should have led when, from a short corner on the left, Whelan ballooned a header over from John McGinn’s cross, while Albert Adomah fired over.

But Albion threatened for the first time when the Villa defence struggled to clear a Chris Brunt free-kick and, in the confusion that followed, it needed a fine save by Jed Steer to tip a Rodriguez shot onto the bar.

It was then another Villa error that set up Albion’s goal on 16 minutes.

A passing exchange between Jack Grealish and Whelan went wrong to leave Gayle in the clear, and the striker ran on to plant a low left-foot shot just inside Steer’s left post for his 24th goal of the season.

Dwight Gayle’s 24th goal of the season took the West Brom striker to his highest ever goal tally in a single campaign

Villa substitutions help turn tie

The hosts twice went close to an equaliser before the break when an acrobatic right-foot scissors kick from 10 yards by Abraham flew just over, before the striker’s low left-foot shot brought a comfortable save from former Villa loan keeper Sam Johnstone.

But they went down the tunnel at half-time knowing that they would have to improve, and Villa certainly did that as they created more chances.

Whelan had a low shot blocked, Abraham put a near-post header just off target, Grealish had a deflected curling effort saved low down and Anwar El Ghazi shot just over from an angle.

But it was only when Villa head coach Dean Smith turned to his bench that his side finally got their breakthrough.

Grealish squared for Hourihane to hammer home first time left-footed, with Johnstone rooted to the spot as the Republic of Ireland international’s ninth Villa goal of the season flew inside the left post.

Moments later Grealish went down in the area under a challenge from Kieran Gibbs, the penalty was given and Abraham made no mistake for his 26th goal of the campaign.

But the drama was not over as Gayle’s late red card potentially tilted the balance of the tie in Villa’s favour.

‘We keep on finding ways to win’ – post-match reaction

Aston Villa head coach Dean Smith told BBC Sport:

“I had a massive decision to make in leaving out Conor Hourihane, just as I have had tough decisions to make over the last two or three months.

“I’ve got four quality international midfield players and only three places – and four into three doesn’t go. But Conor answered in the best way possible with a lovely strike.

“Albion came with a game plan to slow the game down and they capitalised on Glenn Whelan’s mistake. Their approach might be a bit different on Tuesday night. Their supporters might want them to play a bit differently.

“Although a few of ours won’t think they had their best game, we keep on finding ways to win. But I was frustrated that, when they were down to 10 men, we maybe did not have enough opportunities to go on and get another.”

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