FEATURE | How Trezeguet’s heroics saved Aston Villa from relegation

Trying to achieve safety in the English Premier League as a newcomer is an incredibly difficult challenge. Teams can spend in excess of $200m in a year in hopes of not relegating but still come up short. 

The likes of Fulham getting promoted and then going down after spending over $100m on mostly flop transfers will serve as cautionary tales to every newly promoted Championship side for the coming years and decades.

The task is especially difficult for the players who are signed en masse in hopes of transforming the squad from Championship to Premier League quality. Aston Villa signed 16 players for $175m. 

Watford, who were in the relegation hunt with Villa to the final minutes on Sunday’s final matches of the season, spent a pale $52.8m on six players in comparison; most of which was spent on Senegalese winger Ismaïla Sarr. 

Players go from being the best at what they do on their team (or even in the their league) to having to fight for a starting spot against multiple new singings and returning veterans in their position.

This was especially true for Egyptian winger Mahmoud Hassan ‘Trezeguet’, who was signed from Turkish side Kasimpasa for $11m – Villa’s eighth most expensive signing of the season.  

Trezeguet’s road to Aston Villa from Al Ahly wasn’t the easiest. The youngster struggled to adjust to Belgian football after RSC Anderlecht purchased him in 2016. Part of this was due to a language barrier, but not being the star of his team also contributed to his struggles, said his manager Besnik Hasi: “He is a diligent player and trains well with us… but in his former club, he was the star and everything went through him, it’s harder here.” 

He was sent out on loan to Mouscron, where he starred despite his side’s relegation battle. Upon returning to Anderlecht, he was loaned out and subsequently sold to Turkish side Kasimpasa, where he became one of the top dogs in the Turkish league. 

In his first season in Turkey he scored 15 goals and assisted eight, earning a spot in Egypt’s starting XI on the left wing in the process. Trezeguet entered the World Cup as a young prospect to watch out for, but was not able to make much of an impact as the Pharaohs lost all three matches. The next season he scored nine goals and assisted another nine, making it all but certain that the Egyptian would leave Turkey for a bigger stage. 

Aston Villa took a chance on the 24-year-old and signed him for $11m, but they did not give him the reigns to run things as he did with Kasimpasa. They signed wingers Anwar El Ghazi and Jota, while retaining the services of their star player and captain Jack Grealish on the left wing. 

The transfer of Trezeguet, as were the transfers of teammates Mbwana Samatta, Marvelous Nakamba and Matt Targett, was orchestrated by the club’s sporting director Jesus Garcia Pitarch. The Spaniard was sacked after club chiefs decided it was necessary to reevaluate the club’s recruitment strategy – just two days after the side he largely put together *barely* achieved safety in the Premier League. 

The club ownership was extremely unhappy to be in such a tight race for safety – a last minute goal from West Ham to win their final match over Villa or a Watford win could’ve sent the Birmingham club straight back down to the second division. They were particularly unhappy that their transfer investment in the region of £150million came so close to terribly backfiring.

It often seemed at times that manager Dean Smith was not pleased with the selection of players that Pitarch brought to Villa Park.

This was evident with Trezeguet, who never got to play (and start) consistently until the end of the season. Smith started the winger for the team’s first four matches. He was the first substitute of the season after Smith pulled him 60 minutes into their clash with Tottenham. He was subsitiutued off towards the end of the game for the next two before being sent off against Crystal Palace. 

It took over two months from his debut for the Egyptian to play a full 90 minutes in the Premier League, when he played a part in the entirety of Villa’s 3-0 loss to defending champions Manchester City. He impressed enough in that match – notching a match-high four shots along with Raheem Sterling and Gabriel Jesus – to earn a start in his side’s next match – an EFL Cup matchup against Wolves. Trezeguet played the full 90 in their 2-1 win as they advanced to the next round. The EFL Cup would become the first setting of Trezeguet’s heroics for Aston Villa this season, but more on that later. 

He played the full 90 and scored in their next two Premier League matches against Liverpool and Wolves (both 2-1 losses). Trezeguet returned from the international break and started Villa’s next two matches against Manchester United and Chelsea, scoring in a 2-1 loss to the latter.

In the first third of the season Trezeguet had three goals (and an assist) through Villa’s first 13 games. After that point things went south for Trezeguet as he lost his starting spot and would not play over 85 minutes in a match until July. 

Trezeguet (and his Egyptian teammate Ahmed Elmohamady – who also lost a starting spot) were able to achieve some fan-fare and make the season for Villa fans just a little bit better when they combined to create a wonderful moment in the EFL Cup.  

93rd minute. 2-2 on aggregate. Aston Villa vs Leicester City. EFL Cup Semi-final. 

Substitute Elmohamady whipped up an excellent cross from the right side that found Trezeguet on the back post in the 93rd minute. The winger, also substituted on, pounces and volleys it across goal into the bottom right corner – leaving the keeper with no chance. 

The final whistle blows and Trezeguet is paraded around Villa Park by the fans while Dean Smith and co celebrate that the club will play in the Final at Wembley. Truly the stuff of movies. But the story didn’t end that easily for Trezeguet and his Villa teammates. 

He would play a combined 92 minutes over the next three Premier League matches – all losses – and didn’t even start in the Cup Final as Manchester City won 2-1. Things didn’t improve after the coronavirus restart. 21′, 20′, 70′ and 8 minutes played. 

Trezeguet found better fortunes in the next two matches, starting in losses against Liverpool and Manchester United. But Aston Villa were still losing, and it seemed almost certain that they would be playing in the Championship next season. 

The moment Villa seemed most destined to go down was when Watford came from behind to defeat Newcastle on 11 July, placing the Hornets seven points above Villa. The next day Villa faced Crystal Palace: Dean Smith’s side had not won a league match in 10 matches (173 days). There were only four matches left, so Villa needed everything they could get. 

Enter Trezeguet. In the added minutes of the first half the Egyptian was left open on the far post after a Conor Hourihane freekick and made no mistake in slotting it home to make it 1-0. 

Less than 15 minutes into the second half Trezeguet made it 2-0 after he latched onto a Hourihane header from close distance and was able to beat the goalkeeper. 

When Crystal Palace arrived at Villa Park the following day, Dean Smith’s team had to do something they had not managed in 10 league games, spanning 173 days: win a football match. There were just four games to go and Villa had given very little indication that they could bridge the gap – at least to those looking in from the outside.

Three days after their 3-0 loss to United they faced off against Crystal Palace at Villa Park. In the added minutes of the first half Trezeguet was left open on the far post after a Conor Hourihane freekick and made no mistake in slotting it home to make it 1-0. Less than 15 minutes into the second half Trezeguet made it 2-0 after he latched onto a Hourihane header from close distance and was able to beat the goalkeeper. 

Things were looking up after the victory. Their next match – a 1-1 draw at Everton – was particularly devastating as they conceded in the final minutes. 

Up next: Arsenal. The Gunners were not having a great season but were still expected to defeat the Villains, but Trezeguet was having no part in that. 

Villa defended deep the entire first half – virtually shutting down Arsenal –  but Trezeguet was able to break the deadlock when a second ball fell to Trezeguet at the back post again, and the Egyptian hit a beautiful half-volley to score the only goal of the game.

The result put Villa out of the relegation zone – for the first time in what felt like forever. Results on the final matchday went their way and Villa were safe. 

How much of this was down to luck? What if Trezeguet was on the bench for these key matches? 

We’ll never know the answers to these questions. What we do know, however, is that Trezeguet’s heroics in the final matches saved Aston Villa from relegation. Those heroics, in my opinion, are worth far more than the $11m fee they spent on him a year ago, and I’m sure Villa’s owners will agree with that.