Football: Villa's flight of fantasy: Ron Atkinson's team return with Uefa hopes high. Phil Shaw reports

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The Independent Online
SOMEWHERE between the Alps and the Channel, Doug Ellis took to the aeroplane tannoy to rally the Aston Villa faithful returning from a 1-0 defeat in the first leg of their Uefa Cup tie against Internazionale in Milan.

The chairman's message, greeted by weary cheers from Nigel Kennedy and company, was based as much on reasoning as bravado. If Inter could overturn a two-goal deficit incurred at Villa Park in 1990 and go on to win the competition, why should not Ron Atkinson's side do likewise?

Cup football, alas, has little truck with logic, and Villa's prospects remain up in the air. True, they will be at home, though an unimpressive record there includes last year's loss to Deportivo La Coruna after a draw in Spain. While Inter are not the force of old, they proved on their way to regaining the trophy last spring that they are well versed in the art of protecting a lead.

What is more, they have Dennis Bergkamp. The Dutchman's habit of putting the ball in English nets - for club and country - must delight the Scottish patriot after whom he was named. Bergkamp's languid style and tendency to drop deep may make him the antithesis of the livewire Denis Law, and have not endeared him to press or public in Italy, but he is a similarly single-minded marksman.

Remarkably, he had scored in five consecutive matches against teams from these islands. All came from open play, yet the heat was on Bergkamp when he stepped up to the penalty spot to face Nigel Spink with 15 minutes left. After Inter's pressure, a penalty that combined placement and power was the least they deserved, even if the two best saves of the night belonged to Gianluca Pagliuca.

The crueller wits among Villa's support remarked that John Fashanu has still not played in Europe. In fairness to the one-time pirate of Plough Lane, Atkinson's decision to buy a target man at the same time as selling the wingers on whose service he might have thrived, Steve Froggatt and Tony Daley, appears increasingly flawed.

In contrast, Villa's other European debutant was an outstanding success. The 21-year-old Ugo Ehiogu, as imperturbable alongside Paul McGrath as he is unpronouncable, shrugged off an early booking and racist abuse from the crowd to give a performance that his manager described as 'immense' and left Giuseppe Bergomi, the veteran Inter defender, purring in admiration.

At San Siro, a celestial citadel in steel and stone, the stands seem to reach for the sky. Back in Birmingham, on 29 September, that must also be Villa's ambition. Anything less and another continental campaign will surely be grounded prematurely.

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