Football: Villa owe a big debt to Vassell

Uefa Cup: Liverpool look the only certain qualifiers after another tense night for English football
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The Independent Online
FOR A league which likes to see itself as the best in the world, the FA Carling Premiership endured patchy results in the Uefa Cup's first round, first leg matches. Its Scottish equivalent, forced into ever more anguished European inquests during the 90s, for once enjoyed the better of things.

After a night when the unlikely name of Darius Vassell hogged the headlines following his dramatic introduction at Villa Park, only one of the English quartet appear assured of progress. Liverpool won 3-0 at Kosice of Slovakia with another, more familiar substitute also having an instant impact. Robbie Fowler created a goal with his first touch in competitive action for seven months.

Aston Villa and Leeds United needed late goals - three in Villa's case - to ensure they take an advantage to Norway and Madeira respectively. Blackburn Rovers, by contrast, succumbed to Lyons in the final minutes, yet Rangers earned a draw at a similar stage in Israel and Celtic put internal strife behind them to prevail in Portugal.

Villa, top of the domestic pile, trailed Stromsgodset 2-0 after 82 minutes. If their tactical naivety in the first half did not augur well for a repeat of last season's run to the quarter-finals, their refusal to accept the seemingly inevitable was testament to the spirit fostered by John Gregory's management.

Vassell's goals, 10 seconds from the end of normal time and with the game's last kick, sealed an incredible 3-2 win. The 18-year-old Brummie, associated with Villa since he was 12, used to cheer Dwight Yorke from the Holte End. A week ago he drew comparisons with his hero after his second goal for England's youth team against the Republic of Ireland.

Vassell is one of several young players vying to join Lee Hendrie, 20, and Gareth Barry, 17, in Gregory's starting line-up. Gordon Cowans, once a teenage prodigy himself and now coaching Villa's juniors, said: "After the Bosman ruling, it's vital we bring on our own players. Manchester United are best at it, but we're doing well."

Gregory is likely to view the return as an occasion for experience. Stromsgodset have resisted the temptation to switch the match 30 miles north to the national stadium in Oslo. They believe their best chance is on the cramped pitch at their 7,000-capacity ground in the port of Drammen. However, having snatched defeat from the jaws of victory, a team who have leaked two and a half goals a game this year may feel they have let their chance slip.

Leeds' disappointment at taking only a 1-0 lead was tempered by the satisfaction of denying Maritimo an away goal. Nigel Martyn has been beaten only once in their first six games, and George Graham will be confident that his team can make progress.

The Blackburn manager, Roy Hodgson, was uncharitable in defeat. "I don't think Lyons can honestly say it was a planned 1-0 victory, or the fruit of clever attacking or good defending," the former Internazionale and Switzerland coach complained. Widely touted as a future England manager, Hodgson must find a way to turn dominance into goals if Rovers are not to make another early exit.

After their embarrassment in the European Cup, Celtic achieved arguably the most impressive British win, 2-1 at Vitoria Guimaraes. Rangers' 1- 1 draw in Jerusalem was a moral victory in more ways than one. Their French goalkeeper, Lionel Charbonnier, conceded a penalty for the first time in his career, hinting afterwards that his "victim", one Ofar Shitrit, had lived up to his name by diving.

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