Aston Villa face a mouthwatering introduction to the Uefa Cup group stages with the visit of Dutch giants Ajax to Villa Park in what supporters are claiming will be a return to the heady European nights they last enjoyed a decade ago.
Villa learned their fate in Europe when they were drawn out of the hat in Group F at the Uefa Cup headquarters in Switzerland.
As well as drawing Ajax, Martin O’Neill’s side will entertain Slovakian minnows Zilina at Villa Park but face tough trips to Czech side Slavia Prague and German top flight side, Hamburg.
Villa avoided perhaps the competition’s most testing side, however, Champions League giants AC Milan who were drawn in Group E along with Portsmouth.
A jubilant O’Neill said the draw was an exciting one for the club, claiming the visit of Ajax would have Villa Park “rocking.”
The Northern Irishman, who guided Celtic to the Uefa Cup final in 2003 only to endure a 3-2 extra-time defeat to Porto, is the veteran of two successful European Cup winning campaigns during his playing days with Nottingham Forest in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
He said: “We start with Ajax at Villa Park which is a mouth-watering tie and then it’s Slavia Prague away, Zilina at home before the tough trip to Hamburg away.
“It is just absolutely brilliant to be part of it all and being back in European Competition is fantastic news for the football club.”
O’Neill believes fans, who only saw their side lift the European Cup once in 1982 following a memorable 1-0 win over Bayern Munich in Rotterdam, will turn out in their droves for the match on October 23.
He said: “Villa Park could be really rocking against Ajax in the opening game. It is a step up in quality. If you look at some of the teams involved, for example AC Milan, Seville and Ajax – these are sides with a real pedigree.”
The Villa boss continued: “I have said before being in this competition and making it through to the group stages guarantees us some great European nights up until Christmas.
“We might be in the Uefa Cup but I said to the backroom staff before the draw that there are 10 or 12 teams still in the competition that could be contesting in the Champions League.”
Villa, who last competed in the Uefa Cup back in 1995 crashing out in the first round to Swedish side Helsingborg on the away goals rule, will now hope to fill one of the top three spots in their group in order to take their place in the last 32.
Villa’s opening game against Ajax, presently managed by Marco van Basten, sees them meeting a side who have won the European Cup four times – three times in three years between 1971 and 1973 and also in 1995.
Villa then fly out to Prague on November 6 to meet Slavia Prague who have won 14 trophies in their history including the Czech Cup and the Mitropa Cup in 1938 which was held between clubs in Central Europe.
Their most recent success was winning the Gambrinus League last season.
Last year Slavia, the lesser known Prague side to neighbours Sparta, qualified for the Uefa Champions League group stages for the first time in their history.
On December 4 Villa Park host the third match of the group stages with the visit of leading Slovakian side Zilina, who have won four titles and finished runners-up twice in the last seven years.
Villa wrap up the group stage with a trip to Hamburg – now overseen by former Tottenham Hotspur coach Martin Jol.
The German side were European Cup winners in 1983 – succeeding Villa as European champions. Hamburg are sitting three points clear of the pack in the Bundesliga.
O'Neill was in the Nottingham Forest side who beat Hamburg 1-0 in the 1980 European Cup Final in Madrid.