Football: Villa find new heart to continue their European adventure

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The Independent Online
Phil Shaw

Aston Villa 2 Athletic Bilbao 1

Aston Villa win 2-1 on aggregate

Europe continues to bring the best out of Aston Villa. Putting their domestic squabbles and set-backs behind them, they made home advantage in the second leg count against Athletic Bilbao last night to reach the third round of the Uefa Cup for the first time in 20 years.

After a goalless first leg, Ian Taylor and Dwight Yorke struck either side of half-time to put Brian Little's Premiership strugglers in command. Their position was undermined when Javier Gonzalez halved the arrears to set up a fraught finale, but Villa deservedly held out.

For once, they could not complain about luck giving them a wide berth. Bilbao's goalkeeper, Imanol Etxeberria, gifted them the first goal with an elementary error.

Taylor's breakthrough lifted Villa after a tense start. Gareth Southgate, initially booed by the home fans following his criticism of the club's transfer policy, quickly won the crowd back over with two fine interceptions that stopped Ismael Urzaiz in his powerfully built tracks.

Savo Milosevic, another player who had spoken out of turn by sharing his low opinion of Stan Collymore with the media, had the ball in the net twice in the opening eight minutes. On each occasion he had already been ruled offside and earned a caution for his trouble, although after Villa's recent barren run the sight of the rigging bulging seemed to give them heart.

They were further encouraged by Etxeberria's tendency to flap at crosses and punch when it was easier to catch. Even so, the calamity which befell him as he rose to take a feeble centre by Milosevic in the 28th minute was a veritable bolt from the claret and blue.

Yorke offered only a token aerial challenge, but it was enough to make the keeper spill the ball. Taylor, the former Holte Ender and sole Brummie in Villa's line-up, briefly made himself top scorer for the season by prodding in his fourth goal.

It was in September, nine games earlier, that Yorke had last scored, so the explosion of relief which greeted Villa's second goal may well have been heard over at St Andrew's.

The ball was worked across the pitch from left to right, via Alan Wright and Taylor. Mark Draper's overlapping decoy run caught the Basque defence in two minds; a moment's hesitation by Francisco Ferreira was all the encouragement Yorke needed to bury a diagonal drive from 15 yards.

While lacking the individual flair of the last Spanish visitors to the Midlands, Atletico Madrid, Bilbao responded positively and pulled a goal back with 20 minutes remaining. Gonzalez, who had appeared as a substitute two minutes earlier, swung at a clearance from 18 yards and was delighted to see the ball deflected beyond Mark Bosnich off Southgate.

Bilbao huffed and puffed for the second away goal that would have taken them through. However, Villa came closer through fierce long-range efforts by Steve Staunton and Milosevic, while Yorke blazed wildly over with only Etxeberria to beat.

As to whether Villa's victory heralded a turning point in their fortunes, Little was understandably guarded. "We've had a few results we hoped would kickstart our season, like Bordeaux in the last round, but then we've gone and blown it. We've been our own worse enemies. At least this gives us all something to look forward to again."

The Villa manager was happy to accept the break that had come his team's way courtesy of the hapless Etxeberria. "Tap-ins count the same as a 35 yarder," he said. "We used to play two goals for a header when I was at school, but you don't get that at this level."

Aston Villa (3-5-2): Bosnich; Scimeca, Staunton, Southgate; Charles, Draper, Taylor, Nelson (Grayson, 86), Wright; Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: Ehiogu, Collymore, Joachim, Curcic, Hughes, Oakes (gk).

Athletic Bilbao (3-4-3): I Etxeberria; Alkorta, Rios, Ferreira (Lasa, 51); Larrainzar, Urrutia (Gonzalez, 68), Alkiza, Larrazabal; J Etxeberria, Urzaiz, Ziganda (Guerrero, 53). Substitutes not used: Goikoetxea, Lacruz, Nagore, Valencia (gk).

Referee: S Piller (Hungary).