Dean Smith is running out of superlatives for Jack Grealish and hailed the “telling contribution” of debutant Pepe Reina after Aston Villa hit back to draw 1-1 at Brighton.
Influential captain Grealish salvaged an important point for relegation-threatened Villa by lashing home his ninth goal of the season with 15 minutes remaining at the Amex Stadium.
Veteran goalkeeper Reina, who could do little about Leandro Trossard’s first-half opener, then pulled off a superb late save to deny Seagulls striker Neal Maupay an acrobatic winner.
Grealish’s strike was his fourth in as many games against Albion, while 37-year-old Reina proved with his late heroics that he can still compete in the top flight.
“I thought it was a well-deserved point,” said Villa boss Smith. “A great finish from Jack but it’s what we’ve come to expect from him and you do start running out of superlatives for him.”
Former Spain and Liverpool keeper Reina, signed on loan from AC Milan this week, was a commanding presence on his first Premier League appearance since May 2013.
“He is calmness personified. You wouldn’t know he was just making his debut for a new team,” said Smith.
“I know he’s a World Cup winner and an experienced goalkeeper but he showed a lot of calmness on the ball.
“That character that he’s got and that charisma he’s got is rubbing off on people in the team.
“He’s made a good save around the post, so a telling contribution.”
Villa remain in 18th position, a point from safety, with Brighton just three points better off.
Tempers boiled over at the end of a competitive south-coast contest when Frenchman Maupay had to be separated from former Brentford team-mate Ezri Konsa.
Smith, who managed the pair at Griffin Park, dismissed the incident as “handbags”.
He said: “Well, they were mates – I’m not sure they are so much now!
“I like Neal. He has got the red mist every now and again that can descend, but I think it was handbags at the end.
“I think it just shows you they’ve got the fire in their bellies to do well for their teams.”
Villa, who lost record signing Wesley to a season-ending knee injury on New Year’s Day, once again played without a recognised striker.
Smith hopes to complete an imminent deal for Genk’s Tanzania forward Mbwana Samatta.
“We’re getting very close – I think the paperwork is just being ticked off with Samatta,” said Smith.
“If we can get that done, we’ll be really pleased because he’s a good player and on top of that he’s a really good character as well.”
Brighton’s backline left Grealish with acres of room to control a cross from substitute Douglas Luiz and hammer home a soaring drive past keeper Mathew Ryan.
Albion boss Graham Potter was left to rue that defensive lapse as his side missed a big chance to put distance between themselves and the drop zone.
“I thought we played really well first half. Second half, they responded, which you expect in a game like this with the importance of it,” said Potter.
“Some players you can get away with it (being out of position), but not with Grealish. It’s a great strike, a half-volley almost.
“We’ll dust ourselves down and take the point we’ve got.”
Like Smith, Potter played down the scuffle involving Maupay and Konsa.
“It’s just an indication of the intensity of the game. It was a hard-fought Premier League game, both teams want to win,” he said.
“Emotions were running away at the end but it’s handbags a little bit.
“We know (Neal) is that kind of personality and it’s about how he controls it but that’s what makes him who he is.”