After six qualifying matches against humble opposition, Aston Villa enjoyed the taste of some real European football last night, although they made hard work of winning their opening Group F game with a goal by Gareth Barry just before half-time. Missing their tall striker John Carew, who should be back against Wigan on Sunday, they played Gabriel Agbonlahor down the centre, but were unable to force many scoring chances despite some good service from Ashley Young on the left flank. Agbonlahor was carried off in the final minute but is not believed to be seriously injured.
Marco van Basten's Ajax, still producing good young players but forced to sell the better ones, are only ninth in the Dutch League and without an away win. They came back well after Martin Laursen's opening goal and forced Brad Friedel into a good late save from Urby Emanuelson before submitting. The exchange of goals in the first quarter of the game brought two headers by centre-halves from corner kicks. Martin Laursen capitalised on weak work by the third-choice goalkeeper Kenneth Vermeer, who ventured out and failed to collect, by nodding in his fourth goal of the season from Ashley Young's kick after eight minutes. It was inadequate marking rather than goalkeeping that brought an equaliser less than quarter of an hour later.
Although Luke Young did well to get across from right-back and block Jeffrey Sarpong's shot, Thomas Vermaelen was left unattended to head in Emanuelson's inswinging corner. On the half-hour, Emanuelson delivered an identical ball and to Brad Friedel's fury, Luis Suarez was allowed to flick on for Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who could not quite convert at the far post.
The crowd were beginning to grow restless towards the interval and some had doubtless made their way down for a warming drink when a goal suddenly materialised from Villa's only other attempt on target in the first half. Ashley Young was again the creator, his low cross being jabbed out by Oleguer towards the penalty spot, from where Barry calmly side-footed in. There was barely time for the dismayed visitors to kick off before half-time. Although O'Neill was delighted with their "brilliant" second-half performance, Villa failed to turn territorial superiority into scoring opportunities.
The best one followed another corner, the improving Vermeer parrying Nicky Shorey's shot to Laursen and just managing to hold the defender's header right on the line. Agbonlahor, watched by his England Under-21 manager Stuart Pearce, then failed with an appeal against the substitute Leonardo for what O'Neill called "a clear-cut penalty".
There was an anxious final period as Huntelaar and Emanuelson went uncomfortably close to securing a draw and Agbonlahor collided painfully with the goalkeeper. "He's got a lot of cuts across both knees but we're hoping that's all it will be," O'Neill said. Villa must now play Slavia Prague, Zilnia and Martin Jol's Hamburg.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Friedel; Young, Cuellar, Laursen, Shorey; Milner, Reo-Coker (Gardner, 81), Petrov, Barry; Agbonlahor, Young. Substitutes not used: Guzan (gk), Sidwell, Harewood, Davies, Knight, Salifou.
Ajax: (4-1-2-3): Vermeer; Bruno Silva ((Van der Wiel, 78), Oleguer, Vermaelen, Emanuelson; Lindgren; Gabri, Vertonghen; Suarez (Leonardo, 60), Huntelaar, Sarpong (Cvitanovich, 55). Substitutes not used: Vonk (gk), Sno, Anita, Schilder.
Referee: T Einwaller (Austria).