UEFA Cup, group stage: Hamburg 3 Aston Villa 1
TWO starts, two goals for Nathan Delfouneso but in the end it was verging on the embarassing for 10-man Villa as they slumped to their joint-heaviest defeat of the season to fall to third in their UEFA Cup group.
Group F was in their grasp only a few weeks ago before Slovakian minnows MSK Zilina came to town and spoiled the party.
But here their makeshift side were no match whatsoever for the fourth best team in Germany who also hit the woodwork twice.
Villa now know they will face a group winner – which possibly could be CSKA Moscow or Wolfsburg – with the home leg first.
Not since the away trip to Stoke City in August had Villa leaked three goals in a game.
Once again in European competition O’Neill made wholesale changes from the 4-2 win over Bolton on Saturday, with only three players keeping their place – defenders Luke Young and Carlos Cuellar and midfielder Steve Sidwell.
Hamburg have in-form strikers Mladen Petric and Ivica Olic leading the line and in an atmosphere befitting a cup final played in front of 50,000 they quickly set about Villa’s makeshift side.
But it was skipper for the night, Nigel Reo-Coker, who came closest to breaking the deadlock with a well-struck shot from inside the area that flashed wide after the Germans had failed to get to grips with a throw near the corner flag.
Villa were settling into their stride when they found themselves behind.
Petric controlled a huge punt down the ground from Bastian Reinhardt with an outstretched left leg.
He waited for the bounce and then thundered an unstoppable shot past Brad
Guzan who did well to even get the faintest of fingertips to it.
Petric was almost played in again a few minutes later but Carlos Cuellar did just enough to block his path on the edge of the six-yard box as they fought for Piotr Trochowski’s ball from the right.
Half-an-hour gone and it was 2-0 when Dennis Aogo linked with Marcell Jansen down the left and curled an inch-perfect cross into the six-yard box which had Villa’s defence all at sea.
Both Petric and Bosko Balaban’s former Croatian strike partner Ivica Olic were hungry enough to want the ball. Cuellar was beaten and Olic planted a simple chance beyond Guzan.
At the other end Gardner snatched at a golden chance and fired inches over the crossbar from the edge of box.
Villa were saved by the crossbar moments before half-time after Jansen scampered away from Moustapha Salifou and sent a wondrous left-foot shot crashing against the underside of the woodwork.
Villa were under pressure as soon as the half opened and it soon got even worse.
Seconds after Gardner was clattered in one penalty box by goalkeeper Frank Rost as he attempted to get on the end of a fine Luke Young cross, Hamburg broke with Olic out-pacing Cuellar to a huge clearance down the middle from Joris Mathijsen.
The Spaniard held his shirt back inside the area, but rather than go down Olic kept his feet, shrugged off the challenge and finished past Guzan with consummate ease.
It was almost 4-0 when Guzan made a hash of Trochowski’s shot only to see the ball squirm wide of goal.
Then Olic, scenting a hat-trick, headed wide from the resultant corner with the goal at his mercy.
Scottish playmaker Barry Bannan come on to replace the hobbling Gardner, who looked to have a nasty knee injury, for his debut.
But it was too easy for the home side who were even afforded the luxury of replacing Olic with more than 20 minutes remaining.
Reo-Coker drove across the face of goal and wide from inside the box in a rare moment of excitement for Villa’s 2,000- strong travelling support.
Delfouneso reduced the arrears with a close range finish from Cuellar’s cross-cum-shot, but within a minute Villa were down to 10 men when Sidwell was sent off for grabbing Jarolim after a foul on Collin Benjamin 18 minutes earlier.
Villa fluffed four chances to reduce the arrears further in the dying seconds. Marlon Harewood shot against Rost’s legs from close range then headed the rebound straight at the keeper.
Delfouneso couldn’t get his shot past Rost and finally Reo-Coker blazed horribly wide.
Back came Hamburg with Guzan saving well from Anis Ben-Hatira with Jarolim hitting the rebound against the top of the crossbar.