Uefa Cup Group Match: Slavia Prague 0 Aston Villa 1
Aston Villa took a big step towards qualification for the Uefa Cup knockout stages by becoming the first team to beat Slavia Prague at their new Eden Stadion.
John Carew’s fortuitous goal midway through the first half settled the match. But the visitors were tested in the second half, and Slavia will feel they should have taken at least a point.
Villa boss Martin O’Neill made six changes from the side beaten 2-0 at Newcastle on Monday as his men played their second of three games in seven days. Carew’s goal, after 26 minutes, came from a shot by one of the new faces, Steve Sidwell – but owed a lot to luck as the midfielder’s effort hit the Norwegian and rolled into the far corner.
It was the least Villa deserved for their first-half performance, Slavia goalkeeper Martin Vaniak pulling off fine saves from Carew and Craig Gardner – while Ashley Young hit the post.
Villa goalkeeper Brad Guzan, making only his second appearance, played his part – denying Jaroslav Cerny and Marek Jarolim with smart saves.
The second half was a lot more testing for the visitors, Guzan proving more than an able deputy for Brad Friedel - while on the two occasions he was beaten, the ball flew agonisingly wide.
Slavia settled well after a slightly nervy start, and Cerny forced the first meaningful save out of Guzan – who then caught the follow-up from danger man Tomas Necid.
With 20 minutes gone, Gardner missed a glorious chance to become the first player to score a European goal at Eden – sweeping Sidwell’s free-kick straight at Vaniak from six yards out.
Instead, that honour went to Carew.
Young was inches away from making it two moments later when his free-kick from the left smacked the far post, with Vaniak rooted to the spot.
Villa were well on top, and Gardner was denied by Vaniak - who dived at the midfielder’s feet. The ball broke to Carew, but Gardner was deemed to have fouled the goalkeeper and was shown a yellow card.
Vaniak then produced a fine save from Carew - set up by Young, who has having a productive evening down the left.
Carew was also finding lots of space and perhaps should have done better than shoot straight at Vaniak after again being played through.
Slavia served notice they were still a threat – Jarolim drawing a fine one-handed stop from Guzan – but the hosts were dealt a blow just before half-time when former Liverpool midfielder Vladimir Smicer was forced off injured.
Young began the second half as he finished the first, finding acres of space at the far post, but he chose to cut the ball back – and the opportunity was lost. A mix-up between Zat Knight and Carlos Cuellar – at right-back – gave Slavia a corner. The hosts almost made Villa pay, but captain Erich Brabec shot wide.
The noisy home fans erupted moments later as Necid slid the ball in, but the flag had been raised for offside.
Slavia had the bit between their teeth and Villa were struggling to keep hold of the ball. Matej Krajcik finished a fine move by firing across goal and just past the far post, before Sidwell became the second Villa player to be cautioned for a rash foul on substitute Tijani Belaid.
Cerny should have made it 1-1 in the 65th minute, but Guzan pulled off another impressive save to deny the midfielder before Necid headed just past the far post from Cerny’s excellent deep cross – with Guzan beaten.
Necid, with nine goals this season, rose well again late on. But his header from substitute Dusan Svento’s cross was straight at Guzan – and Villa somehow held on to make it six points from two games in Group F.