Football: Bosnich to turn up Villa vocals

After the missiles in Madrid, Aston Villa's keeper is looking for a verbal rocket to swing the home leg. Phil Shaw reports
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RAUCOUS laughter broke out as the Aston Villa party queued to board the flight back from their 1-0 defeat at Atletico Madrid. When it subsided, Dwight Yorke could be heard mocking the England cricket fans among his colleagues and the press corps for being so foolish as to imagine that they might win the recent Test match.

The Tobagan insisted that the West Indies had been toying with their prey, knowing they had done enough to prevail. The cameo typified a perceptible improvement in Villa's morale during the first week of John Gregory's managership. Yet a nagging doubt persists that Atletico, like Yorke's compatriots, have also established a platform for progress.

Raddy Antic certainly believes a place in the last four of the Uefa Cup is very much within Atletico's grasp, despite Villa wresting control of Tuesday's quarter-final, first-leg match following Christian Vieri's 42nd- minute penalty. After noting that it was a "game of two halves" - which proved his time on Luton's books was not wasted - the Yugoslav coach set out a plausible case for Spanish optimism.

"It will be a hard game at Villa Park because there will be a great atmosphere and they will play differently," he said. "But we haven't lost an away match in Europe for two years, and while that is just a statistic, we have to be confident."

Antic was almost guilty of underplaying Atletico's record. In last season's Champions' League they were the only side to beat the eventual winners, Borussia Dortmund, triumphing 2-1 in Germany. They also won 4-1 at Widzew Lodz, of Poland, and drew with Steaua Bucharest and Ajax.

This time they have won 2-0 at Leicester, after taking only a 2-1 advantage to Filbert Street, and returned unbowed from Salonika and Zagreb. In that context, Antic was entitled to view Villa's failure to score the goal their growing assurance merited as potentially crucial to the eventual outcome.

Mark Bosnich, who exuded an aura of being unbeatable during the early siege, sensed that Atletico were satisfied with their lead. "I don't whether they put so much into the first half that they ran out of steam, but it seemed to me they settled for 1-0. With the away-goals rule as it is, you can understand that mentality."

The goalkeeper's brilliance was all the more impressive for the barrage of missiles from the crowd to which he was subjected. He incurred a caution for time-wasting as he sought to draw the attention of an otherwise impeccable Italian referee, but there is no appeals procedure.

Indeed, only Alan Wright of Gregory's possible starting XI for the return will not be at risk of missing the first semi-final by being booked again. It will be scant consolation to Bosnich to know that Atletico can expect to be fined provided the referee or the Uefa delegate reports the trouble.

The Australian is looking to Villa's supporters to intimidate Atletico by legitimate means on 17 March. "We have to make it as hot as possible for them because they're a top side and have been to some big places. These teams pride themselves on their counter-attacking skills, but if we keep it tight at the back we've got a better than even chance."

Villa's captain, Gareth Southgate, expressed disappointment at a scoreline which he confessed he would have accepted beforehand and warned against getting carried away. "There's no question that the hard work is still to be done. However long it takes, we have to score twice. Atletico are an outstanding team and with the players they've got they'll break very well."

By quashing speculation that he planned to leave during the summer, Southgate has given an added fillip to Gregory's honeymoon period. It is early doors, as Ron Atkinson would say, but the new manager, now entering his second week as Brian Little's successor, appears to have restored stability on and off the pitch.

Gregory, like Little, was a member of the last Villa side to reach this stage of the competition 20 years ago, when they went out to Barcelona. The prospects of going at least one stage further are finely balanced. In the meantime, he may well be cautioning that while Continental football is the icing on the cake, the Premiership is Villa's bread and butter, and survival has yet to be assured.