Aston Villa require a helping hand to prolong their involvement in the pre-season Peace Cup tournament in Spain after losing their opening game to Malaga at La Rosaleda.
Martin O’Neill’s team had hoped to progress all the way to next Sunday’s final in Seville where there is the potential prospect of meeting Spanish superstars Real Madrid.
However, a 1-0 defeat to hosts Malaga in Group C’s humdrum opening clash on Saturday has left the claret and blues relying heavily on a favour from Atlante.
Just the top team from each three-club group qualifies for the semi-final and Villa’s only chance is for Atlante to defeat Malaga this evening and lose to Villa on Wednesday.
Ultimately the game was decided by a defining moment 10 minutes from time when Isaiah Osbourne’s missed opportunity was punished by Fernando’s winning goal for Malaga seconds later.
“I thought we had a great chance at one end – spurned it – and then they scored at the other end,” said O’Neill, who, true to form, is refusing to talk publicly about his transfer policy amidst increasing criticism from supporters that his squad is not deep enough to sustain a top four challenge next season.
“But in a game of very few opportunities, it was very disappointing to lose and as a result, qualification for the semi-finals is now out of our hands.
“We obviously made some changes to the team during the game, with some of the senior players having only just come back to training.
“John Carew, Stiliyan Petrov and Ashley Young played for just over an hour and of course, that affected us a little bit. We would, in general, have liked to have played the major players for a bit longer. That obviously weakened our team.
“But I think it was the right thing to do because they only came back to train on Monday.
“I was expecting to win the game. I thought we would be capable of doing it. I would have liked to qualify for the next stage. It’s not beyond us but it’s now out of our hands.”
Saturday night’s game, played at 10.30pm to avoid Andalucia’s stifling heat and humidity, seemed to be the monotonous match that nobody wanted to win.
On the balance of play the Spaniards deserved their success because while Villa failed to register a single effort on target, Malaga tested goalkeeper Brad Friedel on several occasions.
It was cruel then that Friedel’s role in the game’s only goal was less than convincing as his attempt to divert Luque’s cross away from danger merely set up Fernando for a simple tap in from six yards out.
Eric Lichaj, the young American full-back enlisted to help out Villa’s under-stocked defence was also at fault for the winner with a lapse in concentration which undermined an otherwise encouraging senior debut.
That the goal came moments after substitute Osbourne had blazed over Villa’s best opportunity only served to add to Villa’s frustration on a disheartening evening when Emile Heskey was also carried off on a stretcher. Fortunately, Heskey’s head injury, sustained in an early clash with Malaga defender Weligton, was nothing more than mild concussion, much to the relief of O’Neill, who acknowledges that Villa need to strengthen their squad.
“Emile is feeling a lot better,” said O’Neill. “He was a bit disorientated and we felt that, having come back late and only playing a few minutes of the game, it was best to take him off and make a substitution at that stage.
“But he is feeling better now. We will monitor it each day but I don’t think he would be ruled out of Wednesday’s game at this stage,” he added.
VILLA (4-4-2): Friedel; Lichaj, Cuellar, Davies, Shorey; Reo-Coker, Petrov (Osbourne, 66), Sidwell, A Young (Bannan, 66); Carew (Harewood, 63), Heskey (Albrighton, 7).