Ollie Watkins’ European debut might not have been at the Santiago Bernabeu but it was still a night to remember for a criminally underrated striker. Why has there been such little interest in him this summer?
On Wednesday, Aston Villa ended a 13-year hiatus from European football with a convincing 5-0 victory against Hibernian at Easter Road. When you wait that long to play in Europe and you get drawn against a mid-table side from Scotland in a qualifier, it might be a tad underwhelming, but the Villa players put on a show for their fans in Edinburgh and will surely give the kids a run-out in the second leg next week.
The tie is over and Aston Villa will enter the group stage of the Europa Conference League as the favourites to win the entire competition, especially with European tournament master Unai Emery in the dug-out.
After all, the Conference League was made for clubs like Hibs, Osijek and Trabzonspor, not clubs with a squad worth €615million. Obviously, the Premier League’s seventh-best team should be in the competition but it is bloody unfair, isn’t it? Richard Masters should just pull a random team that finished between seventh and 17th out of a hat and give them the spot.
After West Ham’s success last season, it would not be silly to assume Premier League clubs are going to steamroll the competition every year until they are banned for being annoyingly good (and rich). Villa boast players like Ollie Watkins (€34m transfer fee), Diego Carlos (€31m) and Moussa Diaby (€55m), while the Hammers have just sold the player who lifted the Conference League for £100m.
While it is fun to go out on a limb and predict the winner of a competition before the qualifiers have ended, it is also fun to question the transfer strategy of every top Premier League club, especially Manchester United, Tottenham and Chelsea.
Watkins’ hat-trick in the Scottish capital once again proved that he is a terrific all-round striker, even if the opposition were miles off Aston Villa’s ability. His opening goal was an expertly dispatched header from a lovely Lucas Digne – who picked up three(!) assists against Hibs – cross and his second was also a header as he found himself in a perfect position to score at the back post.
Watkins bagged his hat-trick by just keeping himself onside to slot Digne’s pass through David Marshall. It was initially disallowed for offside but VAR did its thing and ensured the England striker was rewarded for holding his line expertly well.
Aston Villa are perhaps a bit fortunate not to have received calls for Watkins this summer, especially considering United, Spurs and Chelsea’s dire need for a striker. The Red Devils wanted Harry Kane and changed their focus to Rasmus Hojlund, who joined for €75m; meanwhile, both London clubs are currently in the market for a No. 9.
While you could say the Villans are lucky, they have made it clear Watkins will not be sold without actually saying anything at all. The appointment of Unai Emery and the big-money signings made over the last two years show a) the level of ambition the club’s owners hold and b) they are hardly struggling financially. It would take a monstrous offer to even consider selling Watkins, who should be Spurs’ priority to replace Kane, even if Villa to Spurs can currently be regarded as a career sidestep.
The 27-year-old seems content at Villa Park, which is easy to say and easy to be if there are no transfer rumours.
Hojlund may be seven years younger than Watkins, but United don’t need a project striker, they need a sure thing, which Watkins absolutely would have been.
Speaking of projects, Chelsea seem hell-bent on investing on players under the age of 23, which is all good and well but they need a goalscorer. Surround an experienced, ruthless, all-round No. 9 with kids and the goals will come; relying on youth as your focal point is a risk and it’s not as if there are many young, world-class strikers available for Todd Boehly to splash some more of his cash on.
Watkins is bloody underrated and has been for a long time. There are no evident flaws to his game and he is clearly ready for the step up to a bigger club, which is no disrespect to Aston Villa, who have European football on offer and have ambitions to finish in the top four of the Premier League. Staying put if a Chelsea, Arsenal or Spurs come calling would hardly be an unambitious or poor career decision.
European exploits like this at Easter Road will do Watkins no harm whatsoever. It wasn’t the glamorous location he might have imagined for his first European goal, but it is still a night to remember for an excellent and underrated striker.
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