THE TEAM lying fourth in Spain inflicted acute embarrassment on the Premiership leaders last night. Celta Vigo, a cosmopolitan outfit from the Galician coast, made light of Aston Villa's first-leg advantage and reputation for formidable defence to reach the third round of the Uefa Cup for the first time.
Villa, who progressed to the quarter-finals last season before falling to Atletico Madrid, have now gone out of two cups in seven days. When they lost 4-1 at Chelsea in the Worthington Cup, it was with a weakened team. This time, despite a numerical advantage in the final half hour, there were no mitigating circumstances.
John Gregory had promised that Celta would see "the real Villa" after the somewhat unfamiliar line-up he had been forced to field in Vigo. Since they had returned with a 1-0 victory over a side still unbeaten in eight Primera Liga fixtures, that appeared to represent a daunting prospect for the Spanish team.
Celta, however, clearly felt that they also had something to prove. The onus was on them to attack, and, having survived a third-minute scare when Stan Collymore's headed "goal" was correctly ruled offside, they swept forward with considerable flair and more freedom than Gregory would have liked.
Alexander Mostovoi, a Russian international who now has Portuguese nationality, proved lethal as he drifted largely unchecked between midfield and the front. Before the game was 70 seconds old he had broken through to shoot across Michael Oakes's goal. His next foray into Villa territory led to Celta levelling the aggregate score. Villa appealed for an offside flag as Mostovoi threaded a pass through to Juan Sanchez. But Gary Charles was playing him onside, and Sanchez maintained his concentration on the angle of the six-yard area to fire into the far corner of the net.
Within three minutes, Villa restored their overall lead. As Ian Taylor shaped to cross from the dead-ball line, Mazinho made an injudicious sliding challenge. While he avoided taking the man, the Brazilian handled the ball. The referee did not accept his plea that the sodden surface had been to blame, allowing Collymore to score emphatically from the spot.
A third goal in nine minutes put Celta back in front. Ugo Ehiogu was adjudged to have fouled Sanchez, giving Mostovoi the opportunity to demonstrate his placement skills from the free-kick. He seized it impressively, drilling the ball low into the minute gap between Oakes and the post from 20 yards.
If the home crowd hoped for a fresh start after the break, during which Mark Draper replaced Charles, they were swiftly disabused. Only three minutes had elapsed when Celta further exposed the frailties of what is theoretically England's strongest defence. Indiscipline was again Villa's undoing, Lee Hendrie bundling over Claude Makelele as he surged past him.
Mostovoi, almost inevitably, took command. His cunningly flighted free- kick from the Spanish left gave Sanchez - hardly the tallest of forwards - a free header. Oakes swooped to his left to parry, only for the beefy Bulgarian, Luboflav Penev, to beat Ehiogu to the loose ball.
Villa were, of course, in a worse pickle in the previous round against Stromsgodset, who led them 2-0 at Villa Park with eight minutes left before succumbing 3-2. Alan Thompson's drive looked goalbound in the 55th minute but the ball struck the post and bounced into Richard Dutruel's hands.
Like the Norwegian part-timers, who had their captain sent off, Celta were reduced to 10 men after 57 minutes. Rafael Berges, cautioned in the first half, cut down Taylor from behind. The ensuing red card served as the green light for Villa to pile forward in numbers.
Taylor hooked wide from one corner, while at the next, a towering header by Ehiogu was hacked off the line by Valeri Karpin. Gregory even sent on Darius Vassell, the 18-year-old whose two stoppage-time goals had completed the fightback against Stromsgodset, but Celta were in no mood to allow the magic to work a second time.
Aston Villa (3-5-2): Oakes; Ehiogu, Southgate, Barry (Vassell, 65); Charles (Draper, h-t), Taylor, Hendrie, Thompson (Grayson, 83), Wright; Collymore, Joachim. Substitutes not used: Byfield, Jaszczun, Rachel (gk).
Celta Vigo (4-1-3-2): Dutruel; Michel, Caceres, Djorovic, Berges; Mazinho; Karpin (Tomas, 70), Mostovoi, Makelele; Penev (Cadete, 77), Sanchez (Eggen, 58). Substitutes not used: Oscar Vales, Gudelj, Jose Pinto (gk).
Referee: A Ancion (Belgium).