Football: Villa able to progress from position of strength

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The Independent Online
Aston Villa kept English interest in the Uefa Cup alive until next spring by seeing off Steaua Bucharest. What's more, says Phil Shaw, they played with the head as well as the heart.

First came Bordeaux, then Bilbao and now Bucharest. No wonder Brian Little, on being asked who he hoped Aston Villa might be paired with in the draw for the Uefa Cup quarter-finals next Wednesday, quipped: "Blazio would be nice."

The possibilities for Villa, after their 3-2 aggregate defeat of Steaua, are mouth-watering. Apart from Lazio, Internazionale advanced by overturning a 2-0 deficit against Strasbourg, while Spartak Moscow, Auxerre and the holders, Schalke 04, also lie in wait.

Villa need fear no one. Since last season's embarrassingly early exit against Helsingborgs of Sweden, they have clearly learned the importance of patience and possession. Even with only 20 minutes of the tie remaining, and the Romanians clinging to a 2-1 first-leg lead, they maintained shape and discipline.

As chances went begging, Villa might have been tempted to wonder whether the absence of Dwight Yorke would be critical after all. Suddenly, they scored through Savo Milosevic, who also contributed the winner against Bordeaux, and Ian Taylor's late breakaway meant Villa did not have to rely on their away goal.

Milosevic, whose first name is chanted mockingly on Midlands grounds when a striker miscues badly, is frequently linked with moves abroad. Benfica are the latest to declare an interest. Yet on Wednesday's form the Yugoslav is an asset, and he certainly talked as if expects to be around for the next round in March.

"Villa Park is becoming a place to be feared when clubs come here in Europe," Milosevic said. "Nobody will want to draw us when they see the quality of the teams we've put out. Our second-half performance was probably our best as a team all season."

As heroes and Villans go, Taylor is of the unsung variety. When Villa last played in the quarter-finals, 20 years ago, he watched from the Holte End as they went out to Barcelona. Five years ago, he was still working as a forklift-truck driver and turning out for Moor Green. Having scored at home to Bilbao, he could have had a hat-trick against Steaua.

Little said: "I thought about keeping the 11 who finished against Coventry, with young Lee Hendrie in for Dwight. But Ian was free from suspension and he's so important to us in Europe. He gets a foot in and breaks the game up in midfield as well as getting forward so well."

Villa will have scant opportunity to rest on their laurels. Their perplexingly indifferent Premiership campaign resumes next Monday at Manchester United.