The rain streamed down at Villa Park in the hour preceding kick off, but grumbles of thunder and the odd flash of lightning couldn’t dampen the excitement ahead of the Premier League’s resumption.
Exactly 100 days since Leicester’s 4-0 thrashing of Aston Villa was the last ball kicked in the top flight, Dean Smith’s side took to the stage against Sheffield United in the ‘Project Restart’ curtain raiser.
Since their respective promotions from the Championship just over a year ago, both sides have had contrasting fortunes this season so far.
The absence of Sheffield United’s John Fleck was a welcome boost for the home side, who started proceedings in the Premier League relegation zone, 2 points from safety.
Blades boss Chris Wilder revealed that Fleck, along with Jack O’Connell, were missing from the team sheet due to impact injuries sustained in training.
Although without long-term absentees Wesley and Tom Heaton, Villa manager Dean Smith opted to deploy John McGinn in his starting XI – the influential Scot making his first appearance for 6 months after recovering from a fractured ankle.
Somewhat aptly, the rain cleared as kick off approached, with both sets of players and officials falling silent for a moment to reflect and remember those whose lives were lost to Covid-19, as well as those combating the virus on the NHS frontline.
One of those to sadly pass away due to coronavirus was Ron Smith, father of Aston Villa boss Dean – the club paying tribute to the dyed-in-the-wool Villa fan by hanging a single orange stewards jacket in Villa Park’s famous Holte End.
The back of the players’ shirts were adorned with ‘Black Lives Matter’, as will be the case for the first 12 games of the restart – but perhaps the most poignant moment of the match came immediately after referee Michael Oliver’s opening whistle.
Seemingly led by Villa’s Tyrone Mings – who has personally attended Black Lives Matter protests in recent weeks such is his passion for the cause – all 22 players and the referee took a knee as soon as the first whistle blew.
It was only for a few seconds – but it was a message of solidarity, significance, and fortified with emotional emphasis.
Keinan Davis, handed his Premier league debut for Aston Villa, made a nuisance of himself in the opening exchanges, getting the better of United’s John Fleck as the home side earned an early corner.
Villa’s Conor Hourihane almost profited from the set piece, the ball rolling in to his path on the apex of the 6-yard-box – but his snapshot half volley was smartly kept out by Blades keeper Dean Henderson low to his right.
The first real moment of contention arrived in the 27th minute, with Anwar El-Ghazi surging into the Sheffield United penalty area.
The Dutchman went to ground in the box under pressure from John Lundstram, but referee Michael Oliver immediately waved away echoed Villa appeals, a decision upheld by a rapid VAR check.
A largely quiet first half culminated with massive controversy, as Sheffield United felt they had been given a rough deal regarding goalline technology.
The Goal Decision System, which has been microscopically accurate since its introduction in 2013, appeared to still be in proverbial sleep mode as Villa keeper Orjan Nyland made a real mess of a simple aerial ball.
The Norwegian flapped at the delivery into the box and appeared to carry the ball over the line, stumbling inside his left-hand post.
However, no whistle came from Michael Oliver to signify the goal, brought about by the absence of a beep on his watch, which under usual circumstances indicates the ball has crossed the line.
Oliver gestured towards his wrist amid protests from the Blades players, and no goal was awarded.
⚽️ Ball clearly crosses the line
⚽️ Goal-line technology fails
⚽️ Hawk-Eye apologise for error
It was a hugely frustrating night for Chris Wilder and Sheffield United at Villa Park 👇
— Sky Sports Premier League (@SkySportsPL) June 18, 2020
With the failing of the Goal Decision System, and the ball remaining active during the passage of play, VAR could have stepped in and assessed the situation.
That never transpired, though, and it later emerged that referee Michael Oliver only received the goal notification during the half time interval.
Despite Sheffield United’s misfortune with technology, Aston Villa looked the most likely to strike first.
The bright Keinan Davis just missed Anwar El Ghazi’s flash across goal, and Henderson turned McGinn’s curling effort wide on the 60 minute mark.
With 15 minutes remaining and fatigue a factor, the game began to open up – but neither side could find the breakthrough, as the first game of the long-anticipated Premier League restart ended goalless.