Jack Grealish struck a terrific second-half equaliser as Aston Villa battled back from a goal down to earn a valuable point against fellow relegation candidates Brighton.
Leandro Trossard had shot the home side into the lead in the first half but Villa recovered to claim a draw that will give them heart, especially as it was achieved without a recognised striker. That vacancy will soon be filled, as the Tanzanian forward Mbwana Samatta has passed a medical as the club puts the finishing touches to his £8.5m transfer from Genk.
This was a clash of two out-of-form sides but Brighton had the advantage of being able to field a balanced lineup. Villa, by contrast, had to start without a specialist striker for the third match in a row, with Anwar El Ghazi again asked to do his best impersonation of a natural predator. The man was game but plainly no tiger.
Villa have had problems at the other end, too, but hoped that a newly recruited veteran goalkeeper, Pepe Reina, would help bring solidity to a backline that conceded six goals against Manchester City last Sunday. The 37-year-old former Liverpool player was put straight into the starting lineup here for his first game since October – when he made his solitary outing for his parent club, Milan – and his first Premier League appearance since he kept a clean sheet for Liverpool, against Queen Park Rangers, in May 2013.
For a while Reina may have fancied his chances of marking his Villa debut with a clean sheet. He had little to do in the opening minutes, other than dash off his line to punch away the ball as Aaron Connolly tried to make the most of a cross from the left by Trossard.
Dean Smith had demanded more combativeness after being angered by the timidity against City, when his team committed five fouls.
They equalled that tally in the first half-hour here, with Danny Drinkwater earning a booking as early as the 14th minute for crunching into Neal Maupay. Brighton still had the majority of possession but were not allowed to do much with it; or maybe they were not able to – there was a regrettable lack of quality from both sides in an opening half-hour that brought to mind a tug-of-war between two earnest oafs of equal weight.
Villa were relatively serene until the 21st minute, when Bernardo spread panic with a burst down the left. Aaron Mooy retrieved the Brazilian’s cross beyond the far post and fired it back into the six-yard box, where Connolly was unable to turn it goalwards.
Trezeguet and Grealish looked lively for Villa on their sporadic ventures forwards but, without a striker, the visitors’ attack was like an arrow without a head. It takes more than stick to beat even struggling Premier League opponents.
It was clear that Villa would have to be ruthless whenever they did manage to concoct any. Which is why they were desperate for Grealish to score in the 37th minute when he ran on to a long clearance and held off two defenders as he made his way into the box. But he then banged a low shot wide from 16 yards.
One minute later, as if to compound the pain of that miss, Trossard showed him how it should have been done. Maupay drove from midfield before reaching the edge of the D and slipping the ball to Trossard, who lashed a low shot across Reina and into the far corner.
Villa have had tendency to fear the worst after conceding this season – ‘catastrophising’ Smith calls it – but here they grappled tenaciously after falling behind. They did not look like equalising until Smith made a double-substitution in the 67th minute. He introduced 18-year-old American striker Indiana Vassilev for his first Premier League appearance and replacing Drinkwater with Douglas Luiz. The switch soon paid off with the help of negligent defending by the hosts.
When Luiz angled a fine pass into the box from the right touchline, Grealish was somehow free to collect it. This time the finish was glorious, as he thrashed the ball past Maty Ryan from 16 yards.
The goal gave Villa an adrenaline rush. But Brighton rallied and would have snatched a late winning goal through Maupay if not for a plunging save by Reina.