Villa Park revelled in the atmosphere of a big European night, especially after John Carew cancelled out a high-class goal by the exquisitely named Wagner Love. Yet Aston Villa will need to summon the form that has built the best away record in the Premier League if they are to eliminate CSKA Moscow from the Uefa Cup’s round of 32 on the Luzhniki Stadium’s synthetic surface a week tonight.
Watched by Chelsea’s spies – CSKA’s one-time sponsor, Roman Abramovich, and his new manager, the Russia coach Guus Hiddink, who will return with the London club on Saturday – Villa fell behind to a 14th-minute goal by the Brazilian striker Love, a vision in blue dreadlocks.
They then subjected the CSKA goal to a barrage of crosses, chiefly from Ashley Young, although it took a measured pass by Craig Gardner to pave the way for Carew’s riposte 21 minutes from time.
Martin O’Neill was defiant about the task now facing his side, mindful that Villa have won 14 and lost just five of their 21 away matches.
“Obviously it’ll be difficult in Moscow,” the Villa manager said. “They’ve got the away goal and we have to score. They showed they are a dangerous counter-attacking side but so are we as our record has shown this season. CSKA are a very fine side who won all their group games and have already qualified for the Champions League. But I thought we played really well.
“People keep on about our endeavour, but I’ve got some top-quality players. Look at Ashley Young’s crosses; I wish I was four years younger I’d get 29 goals a season with someone like him to feed off. His delivery is so exceptional you don’t have to do much to put them in. [Gareth] Barry and [Stiliyan] Petrov were outstanding, too, and [Gabriel] Agbonlahor is developing the ability to come off the central defender.”
Love’s illustrious compatriot Zico, taking his first competitive fixture as CSKA’s coach, was upbeat about their prospects of progress in the competition they won in 2005. “Of course we’re confident – a man without confidence is not a man,” he said, reeling off an old Russian proverb from Rio de Janeiro. “We were not surprised by the way Villa played. They get Ashley Young to put the ball into the box a lot. We expected this sort of game and were ready for it. For the next game we will be in better condition.”
CSKA played Villa at their own counter-attacking game in the first half and deserved their lead from a move started and finished by Love. Taking possession in his own half, he jinked past a couple of challenges before feeding Alan Dzagoev, then raced on to the 18-year-old’s return pass before slotting his ninth goal in this season’s competition beyond Brad Guzan from 12 yards.
One half-expected the theme to From Russia With Love to soundtrack the celebrations, although the sight of Zico, the erstwhile white Pele, cavorting with his brother and assistant, Edu, suggested a samba would have been more apposite.
Villa initially struggled to to recapture the momentum that carried them unbeaten through 11 games until Sunday’s FA Cup exit at Everton. Just after the half-hour, Ashley Young supplied each of the front two in swift succession, but Agbonlahor glanced the ball wide while Carew headed over.
Despite being without James Milner – with Young, the source of so many crosses – Villa clearly aimed to expose the small stature of Igor Akinfeev, Hiddink’s goalkeeper with the national side. The ploy almost paid off after 53 minutes, Gardner heading against the bar following a Young corner.
Ironically, when Villa’s pressure did produce an equaliser, it came about because Ashley Young, played in on the left by Barry, for once put a cross into a space where no colleague had made a run. The ball shot across the penalty area to the opposite wing where it was seized upon by Gardner. Milner’s replacement had sufficient poise to resist another high ball, instead slipping a pass inside for Carew to steer his ninth goal of the season through Akinfeev’s legs.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; L Young, Knight, Davies, Shorey; Gardner, Petrov, Barry, A Young; Carew, Agbonlahor. Substitues not used: Friedel (gk), Harewood, Delfouneso, Salifou, Albrighton, Bannan, Lowry.
CSKA Moscow (4-2-3-1): Akinfeev; A Berezutski, V Berezutski, Ignashevich, Schennikov; Aldonin (Mamaev, 90), Rahmic; Krasic, Dzagoev (Carvalho, 46), Zhirkov (Erkin, 90); Love. Substitues not used: Pomazan (g), Ramon, Da Silva, Odiah, Erkin.
Referee: P Rasmussen (Denmark).