Uefa Cup group match: Aston Villa 1 MSK Zilina 2

Perhaps it’s just as well it’s panto season, because Aston Villa’s cast of understudies failed their auditions on the serious stage.

Martin O’Neill chose to leave his leading men in the wings, but other than talented teen Nathan Delfouneso, the deputies fluffed their lines.

Two goals in the opening 20 minutes from Vladimir Leitner and Peter Styvar stunned Villa Park before Delfouneso’s debut strike restored the hosts’ hope.

However, for all their second-half possession Villa failed to undo the early damage and an equaliser eluded them even when Zilina were reduced to 10 men 11 minutes from time.

Victory was supposed to be a formality for Villa as they booked their place in the last 32 and strengthened their position at the top of Group F.  Villa still join Hamburg and Ajax in the knockout stages. They are now in a three-way battle to claim one of the top two spots which will ensure they have home advantage in the second game when the tournament reverts to a two-legged knockout competition in February.

By the end of an embarrassing evening, however, it was difficult to tell which of the two teams were the favourites as O’Neill’s men were outclassed.

Delfouneso was given his first senior start as Villa made eight changes from the side that played out a goalless draw with Fulham on Saturday. The 17-year-old academy product replaced Gabriel Agbonlahor, given rare respite from this season’s gruelling demands.

Brad Guzan, Nigel Reo-Coker, Zat Knight, Craig Gardner, Moustapha Salifou, Isaiah Osbourne and Marlon Harewood were also selected. It meant Brad Friedel, Curtis Davies, Martin Laursen, Steve Sidwell, Gareth Barry, James Milner and Stiliyan Petrov could join Agbonlahor in taking a breather.

Zilina stopper Dusan Pernis was first into action showing smart reflexes to repel Knight’s header which bounced up off the turf from an Ashley Young corner.Villa must have been wishing Knight had made similar contact in the Slovaks’ first attack which left Guzan picking the ball out of the net on 15 minutes.

There looked to be little danger when Leitner swung over a speculative cross – until Knight ducked that is.

The former Fulham defender’s inexplicable action bamboozled Guzan who was helpless to prevent the curling ball creeping into the bottom right corner.

It went from bad to worse when the eastern European underdogs silenced the Holte End by taking a two-goal lead on 19 minutes. Aduato was allowed too much time to slide Peter Pekarik in behind Luke Young and his measured cross was clinically swept home by Styvar, who beat Knight to the ball.

Ashley Young and Delfouneso seemed Villa’s best chance of salvaging pride and the teenager came within a bootlace of converting the winger’s cross in between the Zilina goals.

Eventually it took Villa’s youngest player to show his more experienced colleagues the way when he gave O’Neill’s men a lifeline by pulling a goal back on 27 minutes. Delfouneso’s first senior strike was one to savour as he squeezed a sweet volley into the bottom right corner after latching onto Harewood’s header down from a Reo-Coker pass.

Even so the goal did not herald the comeback Villa Park was crying out for and other than a Delfouneso cross-shot the hosts failed to threaten before the break. After the interval the visitors continued to stroke the ball around with style and confidence and it took a fine save from Guzan to keep out Aduato’s rising drive from 35 yards.

Ashley Young tried to inspire the off colour hosts by running at the Zilina defence but even the England hopeful met with frustration in his attempts to break down their resolute rearguard.

His and Gardner’s set-piece skills deserted them when they struck free-kicks into the wall from promising positions.

 O’Neill left it until the 65th minute to introduce the first big-hitter, bringing on Milner for Osbourne – and Barry soon followed as a 70th-minute replacement for Salifou. A pair of half chances went begging when Ashley Young’s cross was headed off target by Harewood before the former Watford wideman’s effort drew a routine save.

Gardner came as close as anyone when his acrobatic effort at the far post was blocked on the line with Milner firing the follow-up a foot over and the Brummie midfielder should have hit the target with a late header. Gardner nodded Milner’s cross against a post deep in injury time and Agbonlahor dragged a shot wide as the seconds ticked down.

However, Zilina, a Slovakian super-power, but hardly a European force, were lively on the break and defended diligently enough to deserve their shock success despite Leitner’s 79th minute dismissal for a second yellow card.

Scorers: Leitner (15) 0-1, Styvar (19) 0-2, Delfouneso (27) 1-2.

Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; Reo-Coker, Cuellar, Knight, L Young; Gardner, Salifou (Barry, 70), Osbourne (Milner, 65), A Young; Delfouneso (Agbonlahor, 75), Harewood. Substitutes: Friedel, Laursen, Petrov, Clark.
Zilina (4-4-2): Pernis; Sourek, Vomacka, Piacek, Leitner; Pekarik, Strba, Pecalka, Jez (Tesak. 90); Adauto (Vladavic. 71), Styvar (Rilke. 84). Substitutes: Seman, Karoglan, Belak, Poliacek.

Referee: Espen Bernsten.

Bookings: Villa – Osbourne (foul), Zilina - Pecal (foul).

Sending-off: Zilina - Leitner (second bookable offence).

Attendance: 28,797.