UEFA Cup group match: Aston Villa 2 Ajax 1
Aston Villa supporters have had a long wait for the return of European glory nights at Villa Park but their patience was finally rewarded as their side produced a hard won victory over Ajax to kick-start the Uefa Cup group stages.
And it was perhaps fitting that the goal which eventually decided the winner in this clash between two former Kings of Europe came from a player who might not have been here at all. Gareth Barry had sought a move to Liverpool in the hope of sampling nights just such as this but in the end found the occasion he craved on his doorstep.
Villa Park, has over the past decade, hosted many major football events – the European Championships, England internationals and numerous FA Cup semi-finals - but has sorely missed events of this magnitude involving its own team.
The number of fans, however, making their way to the stadium – despite the 8.15pm kick-off and the fact the game was televised live – suggests this competition has been warmly embraced by supporters.
Barry’s late strike at the end of the first half was eventually the difference between the sides after Martin Laursen had given Villa an eighth-minute lead and Thomas Vermaelen had headed Ajax back into contention.
Villa had started the game without target man John Carew, manager Martin O’Neill making a couple of surprise alterations to the team for the second game in succession. Villa’s £12 million rated winger James Milner once again started the game while Spaniard Carlos Cuellar was brought in at centre-back for Curtis Davies who dropped to the bench.
Former Holland international manager Marco Van Basten chose his strongest squad with Manchester City’s 30-million euro target Klaas Jan-Huntelaar and Urby Emanuelson among their number.
But it was the hosts firing on all cyclinders in the opening few minutes with last month’s Barclays Premier League Player of the Month Ashley Young bringing a roar from the Holte End when he put through put through Gabriel Agbonlahor after just five minutes. The ball became tangled under his feet, however, and the chance was lost.
Man of the match James Milner then went close with a header before Villa took the lead. Martin Laursen – one of the Villa players with European experience from his days with AC Milan – jumped highest to head home an Ashley Young corner and spark scenes of jubilation on the pitch and in the stands.
It was perhaps fitting Villa’s lead should come through a set piece – they are after all the masters of the art – but the Dutch are also specialists and were level on 22 minutes thanks to a corner of their own. Emanuelson whipped the ball into the Villa danger area with Thomas Vermaelen enjoying a free header to equalise.
The goal temporarily stunned Villa and instantly brought the Dutch visitors in the Doug Ellis stand back to life and Van Basten’s men might have had a carbon copy goal just nine minutes later when from another corner Vermaelen again tried to connect with his head. He just missed but Huntelaar was right behind him and almost slid the ball under Villa keeper Brad Friedel.
Villa settled again with Luke Young – dropped for the game against Portsmouth last weekend – maurauding forward at every opportunity and almost gifting Nigel Reo-Coker a goal.
The former Boro man was then back defending from Jeffrey Sarpong before Milner again took the bull by the horns. The young winger did incredibly well to win the ball under pressure from two Ajax defenders and he managed to fire the ball across the face of goal to Ashley Young, who produced a spectacular volley towards the goal but just couldn’t get it on target.
Now it was the turn of Barry to go on a foraging mission and he set up Milner for a chance before grabbing the headlines for himself right on the stroke of half-time.
Scampering away down the left flank, Young managed to steer a cross into the area which centre-back Oleguer Presas Renom could only touch on to the lurking Barry.
With his trusty left foot, Barry connected with a first-time shot that curled its way into the bottom left-hand corner for his third goal this season, all of which have come in this competition.
The second half was amore diluted affair with Villa having fewer chances while Ajax at times threatened to rain on the Villa Park parade. Ashley Young and Nicky Shorey – yet to open his account for Villa – both forced saves from Vermeer with Shorey executing a fine volley to force a diving clearance from the keeper before Laursen followed up on the rebound only to again force the scrambling Vermeer to scurry the ball to safety.
Villa then had a cry for handball and a possible penalty turned down in the 60th minute with Austrian referee Thomas Einwaller later confirmed to have been correct to wave play on as the ball clearly hit the chest of Oleguer.
The home side felt more aggrieved seconds later however when Agboblahor was brought down in the penalty area but nothing was given.
As Villa began to cruise to the final whistle there was a scare in the 67th minute when Ajax substitute Dario Cvitanich fired the ball at Friedel and then Friedel was denying Emanuelson to just about keep Villa’s lead intact.
There was a late concern for players and fans alike when Agbonhalor was stretchered off minutes from time to be replaced by Curtis Davies and the club will prey that injury is nothing too serious.
Meanwhile Martin O’Neill’s assault on Europe and the possible return of the glory days has begun.
Scorers: Laursen (8), 1-0; Vermaelen (21) 1-1; Barry (45) 2-1.
ASTON VILLA (4-5-1): Friedel, L Young, Cuellar, Laursen, Shorey, Milner, Reo-Coker (Gardner, 81) Petrov, Barry, Young, Agbonlahor. Substitutes: Guzan, Sidwell, Harewood, Davies, Knight, Salifou.
AJAX (4-3-1-2): Vermeer, Silva (Van Der Wiel, 78) , Oleguer, Veermaelen, Emanuelsen; Gabri, Lindgren, Verlonghen, Sarpong (Cvitanich, 56) Suarez (Leonardo, 60 ) Huntelaar.
Substitutes: Vonk, Sno, Anita, Schilder.
Referee: Thomas Einwaller (Austria).
Bookings: Villa – Cuellar, Gardner (both fouls).