JACK GREALISH has magic few others possess – and with him in their side Aston Villa have a chance of qualifying for Europe.
Grealish made the vital difference to help earn the win for Dean Smith’s side which saw them climb back up to eighth and in the hunt for a top six push.
Ross Barkley headed home Aston Villa’s winnerCredit: AP:Associated Press
A keenly contested game between two of the Premier League’s most consistent and organised teams was always going to be tight.
So it is in matches like this that the best stand up to make an impact, and the England star did just that to inspire Villa to victory.
His wonderful whipped in cross on the volley, with his weaker left foot, was the killer moment which allowed Ross Barkley to head home the winner.
It was the kind of impression on the game he would have been expecting from the moment he saw the team Ralph Hasenhuttl had picked.
With Kyle Walker-Peters again absent through injury, Grealish would have been licking his lips at the decision to drop James Ward-Prowse in as right-back.
Ward-Prowse has performed well there in the past, but it is by no means his specialist position and the change handed Villa an obvious area to attack.
Yet it was Southampton who began on the front foot, desperate to try to get back to winning ways in the league after two straight defeats.
And within eight minutes Ralph Hasenhuttl and his side were screaming for a penalty when Stuart Armstrong’s shot was blocked by the hand of Matty Cash.
Barkley superbly buried his header into the bottom cornerCredit: Reuters
Ref Lee Mason waved away their furious appeals so it was left to VAR Mike Dean to rule – and when replays showed Cash plunging to his left to stop the ball with his arm there seemed only one possible decision to make.
But to the amazement of everyone, including the Villa bench who had seen replays themselves, Dean backed up his buddy Mason by saying no offence had been committed.
Only last week, Villa boss Dean Smith accused the officials of “juggling balls” when they allowed Manchester City to score despite being in a seemingly obvious offside position.
This time the joke was on Saints, as the PGMOL revealed no penalty could be given because the ball had just clipped the thigh of Cash before it hit his arm.
Feeling harshly done by, Saints continued to snap into tackles sharper than Villa and looked the most likely to break the deadlock.
But despite getting into several good positions they were unable to test Emiliano Martinez in the Villa goal with anything genuinely threatening.
And gradually the visitors settled into the game, probing down the left where Grealish was starting to test the mettle of his England team-mate Ward-Prowse.
One raid down the wing saw the ball clipped in for Ollie Watkins in the 38th minute to control, turn and fire in a low shot which Alex McCarthy did well to beat away diving low to his left.
Southampton were denied a penalty when Matty Cash appeared to handball itCredit: BT Sport
But three minutes later there was no such escape for Saints as Barkley scored a peach of a header to open the scoring.
Grealish raced down the left onto Matt Target’s lofted pass, and at full pace he volleyed a cross with his left foot into the area where Barkley craned his neck to angle his header back in the opposite direction to wrong-foot McCarthy and find the bottom corner.
Saints had gone six long games since scoring in the second half in the Premier League, hardly the kind of run which suggested they were capable of retrieving something from the game.
But they almost ended the streak with 20 minutes remaining when Danny Ings slipped in sub Che Adams but Martinez pulled off a brilliant reflex stop to deny him and Cash reacted first to beat the striker to the loose ball where the goal was at his mercy.
Then Nathan Redmond thought he was about to level, only for Douglas Luiz’s desperate lunge which deflected his shot high over the bar.
From the corner there was yet more frustration as Martinez reacted brilliantly to claw away Jan Bednarek’s header and the follow up from Adams was blocked on the line by John McGinn.
And they knew it was not their night in stoppage time when Ing was denied the equaliser when he was adjudged to be offside by the tightest of margins before following up Ryan Bertrand’s parried shot to touch home.