Bristol City vs Aston Villa - Match preview
The third round Carabao Cup tie at Ashton Gate will be akin to an old pal’s reunion, such are the links between the opposing coaching staffs.
Robins boss Dean Holden finished his playing career under Smith at Walsall before taking his first steps in coaching on the Saddlers staff alongside Richard O’Kelly and Neil Cutler, both of whom are now at Villa.
In addition his assistant, former Wolves defender and Albion coach Keith Downing, is a long-time friend and confidante of Villa head coach Smith.
To describe the tie as a battle between master and apprentice would be unfair on Holden, who has no shortage of experience after putting in the hard yards, first with Oldham and then as assistant to Lee Johnson with the Robins for three-and-a-half years before taking over the top job last month.
But the former defender will happily tell you of how Smith’s methods helped transform his outlook on the game, after arriving at Walsall in 2012 as something of a veteran on the lower league circuit following spells with Bolton, Oldham and Shrewsbury among others. Smith has been a huge influence and the two speak regularly, though not in the last few days.
“I haven’t spoken to Dean this week, no,” said Holden, who is aiming to continue a perfect record of four wins from four matches since stepping into the hot-seat.
“He was fantastic for me. He gave me some training sessions to take care of with the younger players. I learned a lot, in the way he goes about things.
“It was different to what I had seen before in football. I learned so much, not just from Dean but also from Richard O’Kelly and Neil Cutler.
“The doctor from Walsall, Ricky Shamji, is also there. There are a load of them I have good relationships with and I can’t wait to see them on Thursday.
“But hopefully we will be on the right end of the result. I’m not interested whether it’s a league or cup game, we just want to win the game. They’re a Premier League team and it’s another big test for us.”
Downing was present at Villa Park on Monday to see Smith’s team begin their Premier League season with a 1-0 win over Sheffield United.
“I was really interested to see how they went against that 3-5-2 of Sheffield United – obviously similar to us,” said Holden. “But they [Sheffield United] get a sending off after 12 minutes and go 4-4-1.
“Villa are a good team, a Premier League team with a great squad. They made changes in that first round game against Burton but we can’t quite guess on the team they’re going to put out.”
The likelihood is Villa’s starting XI tonight will be very similar to the one which beat Burton 3-1 last week.
In terms of central defence, Smith may have little option with Ezri Konsa having felt his hamstring in the victory over the Blades and unlikely to be risked and Bjorn Engels still missing, Kortney Hause is expected to partner Tyrone Mings.
Ahmed Elmohamady, Neil Taylor and Marvelous Nakamba are all likely to return to the team, with the biggest question being whether Smith opts to again field Jack Grealish from the start or give a full debut to Bertrand Traore.
“It is another busy week. There are no days off,” said Smith. “We were straight back in to training on Tuesday and will be ready for the game.”
Prediction: Away win