Aston Villa caretaker-manager Kevin MacDonald staked another claim to the job on a permanent basis as his young side soaked up the pressure to earn a creditable draw last night in an intimidating environment.
A year ago predecessor Martin O'Neill's side suffered a 1-0 defeat to Rapid Vienna in the first leg of their Europa League play-off, ultimately heading out on the away-goals rule. But Villa now have a firm chance to avenge that exit, with 20-year-old Barry Bannan scoring the precious away goal.
Although Rapid managed to grab an equaliser and dominated for most of the game, the result was very encouraging for MacDonald, who spoke highly of his young side. "I'm very proud indeed," he said. "It was an education for the boys, who played in patches, but I was pleased with all of them because it's not an easy place to come. There's a very strong camaraderie amongst that group of players."
Villa's goalkeeper Brad Guzan was targeted with what he described as "a few lighters, some coins, and some beverages" thrown by home supporters but was not hit. "The referee got involved and it was up to him to get that sorted," said MacDonald. "When you come to these places, I'm not saying you expect objects to be thrown, but you do expect the crowd to be very vociferous in support of their home team, and very anti the opposition. That's something these players will have to learn to deal with if they want to go to the very top."
MacDonald rested Ashley Young and captain Stiliyan Petrov and was also without the suspended Richard Dunne, along with the injured John Carew, Carlos Cuellar and Gabriel Agbonlahor. Marc Albrighton, 20, found himself in good company with the likes of Bannan, Eric Lichaj and Jonathan Hogg, the latter duo on debut.
Albrighton was the instigator of the goal, superbly turning inside left-back Markus Katzer and leaving him on the seat of his shorts before delivering a low cross into the six-yard box. Bannan, who had already gone close with a left-foot shot, was left with an open goal and tapped home from four yards for his first goal for the club.
Villa looked comfortable but under the leadership of Nigel Reo-Coker, making his first start since 2 January, they started to retreat. It allowed Rapid, reeling from the decision of star striker Nikica Jelavic to pull out of this game hours ahead of kick-off as a move to Rangers appears close, to grow in confidence. After Steffen Hofmann and Atdhe Nuhiu had both gone close just after the 20-minute mark, it was those two players who combined for Rapid's equaliser in the 32nd minute.
From the right wing Hofmann's piercing delivery appeared to go straight in, bouncing beyond the despairing dive of Guzan and inside his right-hand post. However, Nuhiu was credited with the goal, the Austrian getting the faintest of touches off the top of his head.
After Guzan then superbly hauled down a 20-yard Hofmann free-kick, the break that soon followed came as a welcome breather to a Villa side who were starting to wilt. It gave MacDonald time to regroup, and for the opening 15 minutes of the second half Villa shaved the play without testing Raimund Hedl.
In fairness to Villa, despite Rapid owning possession, Guzan found himself truly tested only once more, that just after the hour when he was at full stretch to push wide a Veli Kavlak drive.
Emile Heskey dragged one effort wide late on and Reo-Coker fired into the side-netting prior to Kavlak heading a Hofmann free-kick narrowly beyond the post. In the end it was a brave draw for Villa ahead of next Thursday's return, and a night Bannan will not forget in a hurry.
Rapid Vienna (4-4-2): Hedl; Sonnleitner, Heikkinen, Katzer, Soma; Kayhan, Hoffmann, Kavlak, Hinum (Drazan, 85); Salihi (Gartler, 72), Nuhiu. Substitutes not used Payer (gk), Patocka, Saurer, Dober, Pehlivan.
Aston Villa (4-4-2): Guzan; Warnock, Lichaj, Davies, Beye; Reo-Coker, Albrighton (Weimann, 79; Osbourne, 86), Bannan (Delfouneso, 74), Hogg; Downing, Heskey. Substitutes not used Friedel (gk), Clark, Lowry, Baker.
Referee A Hamer (Luxembourg).