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African All Stars

Jonathan Kodjia returning at just the right time for Aston Villa and Ivory Coast

1:58 PM WAT 24/04/2019
Jonathan Kodjia
The striker has endured a miserable injury-hit few years, but is now bouncing back in some style

Jonathan Kodjia scored the only goal of the game on Monday as Aston Villa beat Millwall to break a record that had stood for 109 years.

The Villains’ 1-0 victory was their record-breaking 10th in a row. The previous best was nine, which had been established way back in 1910, when the Midlanders were one of the country’s giants.

These days, their aspirations are much more modest, and a return to the Premier League is the only thing the second-city heavyweights are aiming for this term.

In Kodjia, they may well have the man to get them over the line.

Short-term, his goal took Villa up to 75 points, guaranteeing that they can finish no lower than sixth, and will therefore compete in the playoffs at the season’s end.

While they cannot catch whichever of the top three ends the campaign in the playoffs—likely Leeds United—they will comfortably be the form team heading into the end-of-season tournament.

Credit must go to Dean Smith, who arrived in October to a club down in 15th in the table, and seemingly treading water following the sacking of Steve Bruce.

Initially, there wasn’t too much notable improvement, but steadily, the former Brentford coach has begun to get the best out of key men Tammy Abraham and Jack Grealish.

Even as recently as February, Villa’s form was patchy.

They won just once from Boxing Day and the start of March, taking just three points from their five fixtures in February.

However, things finally clicked in a 4-0 demolition of Derby on March 2. It was a win that launched their victorious streak.

For Villa, things are very simple; if they win their next five games—including the playoff semis and final—they’ll be promoted back to the Premier League.

No one at that club will doubt that they’re capable of a triumphant return to the top table.

If anyone could have reservations about whether there will be a happy ending, it could be Kodjia.

The Ivorian banged in 19 goals during his maiden season in England—with Bristol City—after signing from Angers.

He repeated the same tally the season afterwards, when he netted 19 in 36 after joining Villa.

His fortunes turned in April 2017, when he broke his ankle, and missed the end of the campaign.

He returned in 2017-18, but a series of further injury problems required surgery, and he ended the season with only nine starts and a miserable one goal.

It was a far cry from the form he’d demonstrated during the start of Bruce’s tenure—when he netted six in the coach’s first seven games—and the the amiable former Sunderland gaffer could reasonably point to Kodjia’s injury woe as a key factor in his failure to guide Villa back to the top table.

This season hasn’t been without problems either; 17 of the forward’s 37 appearances have been from the bench, and he hadn’t started in two months before scoring against Millwall on Monday.

Yet this was a performance that served as a reminder of the striker’s enduring qualities.

His finish was instinctual, but showcased his composure and awareness off the ball, as he met a fine cross from Anwar El Ghazi and stabbed the ball beyond David Martin.

Admittedly, Kodjia had earlier missed an excellent opportunity just before his goal, but he spearheaded Smith’s 4-3-3 effectively, and, with Abraham still undergoing assessment due to his ongoing shoulder injury, should retain his place against Leeds.

Kodjia’s goal was his eighth this season, and he’ll receive ample opportunity to add to this tally over the coming weeks.

His form also bodes well for the Ivory Coast ahead of the Africa Cup of Nations.

Wilfried Bony briefly represented a replacement for the retired Didier Drogba—and won the Afcon with the Elephants in 2015, after the likes of Seydou Doumbia and Lacina Traore had failed to step into the Chelsea great’s shoes.

Bony’s fall from prominence, however, opened the door for Kodjia to lead the line for the West Africans.

Unfortunately, despite being tipped for great things ahead of the 2017 Afcon, the Ivorians flopped, and despite starting the opener, Kodjia failed to find the net.

Two and a half years later, and the Ivorians’ offensive options have been bolstered, with Nicolas Pepe now a major goalscoring threat in a major European league.

Wilfried Zaha, Max-Alain Gradel, Gervinho, Maxwel Cornet and Yakou Meite all remain in and around an attacking unit that should be the envy of the rest of the continent.

However, all five—and Pepe—are preferred by Ibrahim Kamara in supporting roles.

In principle, he could feasibly use several as the leading man—Zaha and Pepe have taken on striking briefs with their clubs—but none are natural centre-forwards in the ilk of Kodjia.

The Ivorians have strength across the park, some title-winning experience in their ranks, and genuine match-winners playing in the world’s biggest leagues.

In Kodjia, they might have an in-form goalscorer to cap it all off.