Football: Villa secure Uefa Cup spot

Aston Villa 1 Southampton 0
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In the end, everyone was happy. Villa, who needed only to draw in any case, guaranteed their qualification for next season's Uefa Cup by winning, while Southampton discovered from results elsewhere that defeat did not matter anyway.

Villa finished fifth, one place lower than last season, after a campaign that was notable for the fact that they rarely looked capable of mounting a sustained challenge for the Championship, for which they were quietly fancied in some quarters at the outset, yet equally appeared a reliable bet to qualify for Europe well before Christmas.

Whether they can improve next autumn on this season's dismally short- lived European challenge remains to be seen. Brian Little has not significantly improved the side that went out to Helsingborg on the away goals rule at the first hurdle. He certainly needs to spend and on a creator as well as a second goalscorer, to take the burden off Dwight Yorke.

Yorke's total of 20 is a modest return for a side finishing so well up the table and it was testimony to Villa's lack of bite in front of goal that it took a Southampton defender to hand them the points yesterday.

Richard Dryden was the unfortunate culprit, although goalkeeper Maik Taylor should share the blame. Taylor hesitated as Fernando Nelson whipped in a low cross from the right and although there was no Villa player in immediate proximity, Dryden felt he had to stretch out an intercepting leg. He succeeded only in knocking the ball into his own net.

There was a clear sense that both sides felt they had done enough to secure their respective objectives even before a ball was kicked, especially from Southampton. They were still at risk despite an impressive return of 14 points from their previous six matches yet adopted disappointingly conservative tactics.

Again, Matthew le Tissier, whose career seems to have slipped into another period of aimless drifting, was left on the bench. This time he had Eyal Berkovitch for company, with the more workmanlike qualities of Jason Dodd preferred in midfield.

Given Villa's methodical style, though commendably efficient, is not something to set the pulse racing, the consequence could hardly be described as gripping, and once they had the lead, Villa were even less inclined to take risks, knowing the solid defending that is their strength would guarantee the prize of Europe. A long-range shot by Savo Milosevic, comfortably saved, was as close as they went to increasing their advantage before half-time.

Things improved after the break, marginally at least, and Southampton looked more likely to score. Robbie Slater, whose form has been central to Southampton's revival, almost equalised with a viciously dipping drive from 20 yards, which Mark Bosnich deflected to safety without knowing too much about it.

Then Le Tissier, having replaced Ostenstad with a little under 20 minutes left, went equally close when his free-kick, from just short of 25 yards, struck a defender in Villa's wall and looked to be creeping in until Bosnich scrambled to his left to push it around the post. Le Tissier had what he thought was a legitimate goal ruled out for a barge on the goalkeeper. But by then, news from Selhurst Park and Elland Road had filtered through.

Goal: Dryden og (12) 1-0.

Aston Villa (5-3-2): Bosnich; Nelson, Ehiogu, Southgate, Scimeca, Wright; I Taylor, Staunton, Townsend; Yorke, Milosevic. Substitutes not used: Joachim, Draper, Curcic, Farrelly, Oakes (gk).

Southampton (4-4-2): M Taylor; Van Gobbel, Lundekvam, Dryden, Benali; Oakley, Dodd, Magilton, Slater; Evans, Ostenstad (Le Tissier, 72). Substitutes not used: Le Tissier, Maddison, Neilson, Berkovic, Beasant (gk).

Referee: G Willard (Worthing).

Man of the match: Slater. Attendance: 39,339.

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